In the last week, my last in Cameroon I have come full circle. I now see that many of my dreams have come true during my six months on Cameroon. I mean dreams in both senses of the word:
::: Dreams, the lofty aspirations you think you may never achieve, such as taking six months off to work in Africa on HIV/AIDS at the grassroots level :::
as well as
::: Dreams, those surreal nocturnal experiences that evoke magic or menace, like the dream of flying, losing all your teeth, or going to work naked, again :::
I am lucky to have achieved things I have dreamed about for years:
- Engaging in hands-on development work in Africa with little or no bureaucratic paperwork
- Collaborating with a team of talented individuals whose commitment and communication skills sometimes gave me goosebumps
- Creating a network of Cameroonian friends and colleagues
- Exploring an almost undiscovered paradise and its complex culture
- Adding some new items to my repertoire of exotic languages and anecdotes
- And, last but not least, enjoying the support of a spouse who understands and appreciates my independence and idealistic ambitions
Yet, on the other hand, I have also encountered difficulties that are so profound that they left me feeling dislocated and doomed. Indeed a few of my meetings with the Mother Superior/Executive Director were so unpleasant and unpredictable that they felt like a nightmare gone awry.
We usually talked about important problems, such as donations going "missing" and whether or not condoms are an ethical way to prevent HIV/AIDS. But when the Matron felt that her authority was questioned, she could become hostile and go on the offensive, asserting her control through cut-throat criticism.
In the end, we could not bridge the deep rift between our world views despite common goals and good intentions. Yes, we both recognized that we are similar in many ways: opinionated, passionate, and committed to what we believe is right.
But even after countless conversations, we still had completely different opinions. I believe condoms are an ethical way to prevent HIV/AIDS. She believes they are an evil device that promotes promiscuity and anyone who uses them will burn in hell.
But I suppose that is a lesson in and of itself: some differences are irreconcilable and no amount of conversation or cultural relativism can overcome them. In some cases there is no universally acceptable interpretation of ethics, and efforts to create one may be futile. I suppose that is what makes my experiences here a gritty reality, and not a dreamy illusion.