Here in Njinikom, Thanksgiving is celebrated during the whole month of October when women are harvesting the first batch of food crops (corn, peanuts, potatoes) and planting the second batch (beans, cocoyams). Men are responsible for the primary cash crop, coffee, whose prices have been plummeting in the local market, even as they soar at Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. So this is a depressing time for them. Ten years ago, the price of one bag of coffee used to pay for the school fees of four children. Now, it only covers part of the fees for one child.
Here Thanksgiving is celebrated in the church, not in the home. Instead of feasting, people are expected to offer a portion of their harvest to the church to express your gratitute for the work accomplished in the last year. If you are a businessman or government worker, you make a cash donation.
I attended one Thanksgiving service, and the following is a hodgepodge of thoughts I had while listening to a sermon at the ironicly named Martyr Baptist Church in Wombong with a severe cold under influence of Benadryl. Most of the service was in the local language of Kom, with the pastor giving a two minute synopsis of 45 minutes passionate preaching, so I had a lot of time to drift along on the stream of consciousness, imagining the connections between the few phrases that I understood. I do not know if it was the medicine or my mood but the whole experience was more surreal and spiritual than usual.
"Work now while it is still day, for the night is approaching.” This reminded me of the sentiment that propelled me on this voyage. I spent five years exploring ways to do HIV/AIDS work in Africa, analyzing the opportunities, and even coming close to going to Zambia, before my doubts about the organization cropped up and a US job seemed like a better bet. I also ruled out teaching HIV/AIDS prevention at a refugee camp with former sex slaves and child soldiers from Liberia.
"I am here. Send me.” This was the feeling that precipitated the plunge into the unknown that was this assignment in Cameroon. The timing was right, and no opportunity is perfect. Working on HIV/AIDS in a small rural hospital run by a convent of nuns? Sure! Why not? Even now, after many frustrations and disappointments, I can still recapture some of the initial enthuasiasm and embrace the work for what it is, a lot of effort with unknown effectiveness. And on the good days, I can still just work for the sake of working, without a need to see the desired results.
"The work is large, but the laborers are few." The pastor was probably referring to subsistence farming, but it could equally apply to HIV/AIDS education. The work is overwhelming, emotional, intimidating, and exhausting. When I was making the decision about whether to take on this challenge, I asked myself a lot of questions to make sure I could take it on. "Can I see things for what they are, but not become bitter and disillusioned? Can I be enthusiastic and generous without being blinded by people who were just saying what I wanted to hear so I would give them money? Can I persevere when the inevitable setbacks occur? Can I keep my hopes high even after disappointments? Can I push for progress without being pushy and prejudiced? It is not better, worse, just different. Can I accept things as they are without being complacent?"
"This is the time to take stock of the fruits of your labor and to be thankful, no matter how meager the harvest.” This called to mind the disjointed relationship between passion and perseverance. The more you care about something the more likely you are to burn out and become bitter and disillusioned. To persevere, you have to guard against investing too much of your heart and soul in your work. You can’t lose hope when people are dying, when the projects you started are not sustained by the people you trained, when portions of generous donations go missing, when the management seems more committed to maintaining their power and level of comfort than to doing what is best for the patients and supporting the volunteers who do the bulk of the work. You have to learn grace, to give without expectation, to trust that you are not wasting your time and struggling in vain.
I promised myself to work hard, and not get bitter no matter how disappointing the results. This is difficult because there are so many failures and frustrations, and the "lessons learned" are vapid, not valuable. Yes, I have helped a few: a woman arrived with open sores on her neck and an expired coupon for an HIV test. I paid for her test, but she died two weeks later because she was already in late stage AIDS. Another woman who finally sought treatment as a result of church outreach also died within a few weeks because by the time she came for treatment it was too late to be effective. The lessons: fear, shame, and poverty are barriers to seeking out HIV tests and AIDS treatment on a timely basis, but I knew that already.
Despite this, it is important to end on a positive note. On this Thanksgiving, I want to look back on my experience and remember, as one very young and enlightended Peace Corps Volunteer said,
“Development will happen when and how Africans want it to." I do not know what is right for them. This is their home and they will live in it. Our job, as foreign development workers, is to give them a few new tools and insights, so they have the opportunity to see and do things in a different way. But in the end, they must decide what is best for them in their context.