7.06.2014

The Breaking Point

Funeral Gathering...Drinking and Dancing
I must admit, this past month has been hell, and by far the worst month so far in country. In fact, the month has been so bad that it resulted in my first mental breakdown the other night, which involved me sitting alone on the ground in the middle of my kitchen at 2am, crying and scratching my arm bloody. From an outsider’s prospective, I likely looked quite legitimately crazed and insane. While it’s not easy for me to admit that this past month has quite possibly rendered me the most depressed I’ve been in my life, I feel like it’s something that many (if not most) volunteers go through at some point in their service, and I feel it’s important for future PCVs as well as our parents to understand the ups and downs that we go through. While life can be near perfect one week, the next week we can be, well, sitting alone in the dark at 2am bawling our eyes out. You might be asking what possibly led to this mental breakdown of mine. Well, let me explain.

To begin with, I’ve encountered various administrative problems/letdowns over the past month (I’ll spare you the details) and it led to my arrival at the conclusion that no, “On n’est pas ensamble” no matter what people here say; and it also caused me to realize that the majority of Peace Corps Cameroon admin don’t give a flying fig about us individual volunteers and our work (with the exception of a few amazing staff, such as Therese, the Food Security supervisor). When I arrived in Cameroon I had such high respect for the administrative staff, but that view has severely disintegrated this past month, with perhaps the saddest conclusion being that my program manager cares very little about certain volunteers (you can probably assume that, yes, I am one of those) and will offer very little support, either technical or otherwise, when those volunteers are in need.

Secondly, the planned collaborations I had scheduled with Spencer for soy transformations, malaria education, and work with my People Living with HIV/AIDS group all got ruined or missed because of the aforementioned administration problems. Due to a ridiculous administrative slip up, Spencer couldn’t come and help out with the collaborations we had planned in Lomié, which was a disappointment in and of itself because I had busted my butt the previous weeks preparing for these collaborations, but it also was a disappointment because I rarely have contact with other volunteers due to the very remote location of my village (I am the most remote volunteer in Cameroon). The prospect of having Spencer come and help at my post after spending two months alone in Lomié without any other American interaction was a mental break that I desperately needed for sanity reasons. You might be thinking: ‘But, you have two postmates!’ – Well, yes, in theory I do, but they are never ever in Lomié, hence my feeling of severe isolation out here.

Furthermore, I’m getting increasingly more fed-up with the sexual harassment, which at one point included a pair of men threatening to drug me on my car ride to Lomié so that they can have their way with me, since I wasn’t giving in to their ‘flirtations’ on my own accord. If the random harassment wasn’t enough, the cocaine addict stalker that I had a few weeks back, who entered my house without permission on four occasions a few weeks ago, now watches me run from behind bushes on the soccer field. While I’m not too concerned he’ll do anything after the scene that I made when I found him in my house the fourth time, it nonetheless is exhausting that I can’t even escape during my daily 5k afternoon run. And if the sexual harassment wasn’t enough, on my first day back in Lomié when I was buying vegetables at the 6am market, a drunk woman came up to me, punched me in the side and then took a handful of my hair and ripped it straight out. Needless to say, that hurt more than just a bit.

Fourthly, life in Lomié has been dreary, lonely and unproductive due to increasing long-term power outages which has brought my grant writing process to a standstill. While many volunteers live without power just fine, most of those volunteers live within 3 or 4 hours from their regional capital, where they can easily go to be productive. I, on the other hand, live between 8 and 24 hours from my regional capital (which lately is often without power itself) and requires me to leave Lomié at 3am to get to Bertoua, and during the return trip sometimes requires me to sleep on the side of the road overnight in a car with random men groping me. Needless to say, the travel makes my trips to Bertoua pretty darn infrequent, if not impossible at times – so when there is no electricity in Lomié for weeks on end, it is a very bad and unproductive time. 
Digging the Hole for the Burial 

With all the aforementioned things slowly eating away at me, what led to my 2am breakdown is the fact that I haven’t had a night in Lomié without a nightmare for months. While I’ve started to get use to waking up screaming from me dreaming of myself dying in every way imaginable, the other night was the tipping point because for three nights on end, I couldn’t even get to sleep at all. Why? Because of a funeral next-door. Here, funerals are a celebration of life – so basically it’s a party, with the occasional spurts of hysteric crying fits and occasional fights. So in essence, it's a real life soap opera on crack. Monday afternoon an old man down the road died from drinking himself to death (or so the neighbors say). The afternoon and early evening was filled with hysteric screaming and crying. Okay, fine – mourn – there is nothing wrong with that. But at 8pm the drums started, and then the chanting and singing started. This continued non-stop until 6am, and only got louder with time as people got drunker and drunker. Repeat this for three nights. Every evening from 8pm to 6am or 7am, the drums would pound and loud, drunk chanting would begin. Unfortunately, my earplugs were not strong enough to diminish the volume of the noise. As if the sleeplessness wasn’t enough, I’ve also had some strange nightly medical infliction for the past few weeks which starts at around midnight every night and makes my right hand and lower arm burn and itch until 5am. Anti-itch cream doesn’t work, lotion doesn’t work, and cold water doesn’t work – so I usually stay up all night scratching without abandon until my skin bleeds.

So, there I was Wednesday night at 2am, my third night of not sleeping, listening to the pounding of the drums in my kitchen as I ate a banana and as my hand felt like it was being held in an open flame. Sleep deprivation, combined with stress, combined with anger, combined with severe pain all led to me suddenly to lose it for the next hour.

Thankfully, the man was buried on Thursday (nothing like having the body decompose in the heat for four days before burying it) so the drumming and singing stopped, although there is still a horde of people that are still gathered out there enjoying their free food and alcohol, even though it’s three days later. I have subsequently been able to return to sleeping at night (albeit interrupted sleep due to the itchy/burning hand thing and the nightmares). While some of the problems are remedying themselves, others are not, but I’m still trying to chug on. The man is buried and power has come back, but I still get harassed and feel desperately lonely and isolated. Thankfully, I have my cat for company, even if that makes me risk turning into a crazy cat lady.

But on the bright side, thankfully today the worst thing that has happened is that I have a mosquito bite on the inside of my right nostril, which prevents me from breathing through my nose, and 17 mosquito bites on my right butt-cheek (I counted…I was bored). I guess I win some and then lose some.

3 comments:

  1. Judy Snyder7.7.14

    I'm so sorry you are having to go through with this. I'm sure you are right in that every PCV has many meltdowns during their tour. You are an amazing young lady and hopefully things will get better soon. Hang in there!!

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  2. OK, I am going to write you a whole separate email but the best itch resolver that doesn't draw blod is ginger. It stings and burns a bit but in the end it does not itch. People generally think you are kind of strange rubbing yourself with ginger but with your hair colour maybe they will try and make some local Cameroonian sense out of it which will be worth a laugh. IMPORTANT NOTE - do not try this on mosquito bite in nose as this leads to snot....lots of snot.....and snot is snot a good look.

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  3. I definitely locked myself in my house last week and hid in the bathroom for a few hours one afternoon so that no neighbors could see me through the windows, all while swatting wasps with a flyswatter. We've all been there, girl! Just remember that it always gets better (and worse, and better again!)

    ReplyDelete

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