5 LESSONS I HAVE LEARNED VOLUNTEERING IN CAMEROON.« Back
By Julia Jodlowska
Couple of years ago I spent almost half a year in southeastern Cameroon volunteering as an English teacher in various kindergartens and primary schools. In my case, it was the most life changing experience. In a school of life, volunteering is a workshop worth to sign up for. I could dwell on how much I have learned for ages. Here, I list five important lessons I have received.
1. If you receive a gift, enjoy it by sharing.
I have seen lots of similar scenes at school and in the village: a kid wins something, e.g. a bar of soap or sweet and divides it into even portions for all family members. They were happy not because THEY have won, but because they could share this prize with the whole World (family is usually their whole World). The same had always happen when they were given meatballs for school lunch once a week. Since meat is very scarce, they were putting it into pockets of their aprons to share it later with a family. That was their natural impulse.
2. Do as much as you can.
If you don't have resources to achieve something, then you do as much as you can, so to be prepared for success when means arrive.
Imagine that: 40 pupils carefully watch their teacher polishing his teeth with a stick. A moment later all pick up a stick from ground and neatly polish their teeth. What were they doing? The teacher was showing them how to use a toothbrush. One day, they will be able to afford one and then they will know how to use it (hopefully, they will still have teeth).
3. Do what you ought to and dream big.
My kiddos were all from large families. In Africa high infant mortality rate and dependence on family members due to lack of proper pension system encourages people to have many kids, who are simply a chance to survive in old age. Mothers obviously love all their babies but taking care of the youngest one and working in field prevents them from looking after others. Henceforth, those that are older than second youngest take care of their siblings. They have no choice and they don't complain. I thought that they were dreaming about toys or some sort of food. Yet, whenever I have asked them what were their dreams they would always tell me something hardly doable in their situation, e.g. to visit Rome and hug the pope.
4. Western World has invented watches but the time remained in Africa.
Time is a relative, man-made measure. In Cameroon they usually have no watches, hence they are always on time. If they arrange a meeting 'in the morning', they can come at 7 or at 11 and in both cases they will say that they were precisely on time. They are very patient, they do not mind waiting and they always have time. Most of schools commence classes at 7 but many kids come at 9 or even later. The reason can be the fact that they might live as far as 10 km from the nearest school. Not to mention that the first day of school is on 1st of September and many postpone it till mid-October or November. The reason here is that people in Africa do not think much of 'tomorrow' and even if they work and earn money, they rarely manage to collect enough for school fees. For us it might sounds irresponsible but this is the way they live. For them 'be on time' or 'pay the fee before 1st of September' are completely irrelevant clichés.
5. The fact that you are not hungry is already a thing that can cheer you up.
Kids in Cameroon are hardly ever sad. My kids were always happy, since the most basic things could cheer them up. Even seeing me! They are aware of how the life looks like elsewhere but they have came in terms with their lives. Most of them had suffered at least once from hunger (when I say hunger, I do mean having nothing to eat for at least a couple of days) and they know that a day when they have food is a good day. Interestingly, their reluctance towards thinking about tomorrow is one of the main reasons preventing them from stocking food. For this reason, they usually eat only in the evening after they collect some food from their plot.
After coming back from Cameroon I started to question status quo of many previously clear-cut areas of living. I can undeniably state that I have become different person. I have wider horizons and I am more empathetic. I do not prejudge people and I keep on repeating myself that I cannot understand their incentives without knowing what they went through.
If you decide to volunteer in a developing country, you will probably come back as a different person as well. You will meet people, who you won't be able to forget. They will show you life from their perspective and you won't be ever able to look at anything as you did before. Those people will open your eyes wider and you will become more aware of what life could be.
All pictures come from the private collection of Julia Jodlowska.
Read also other article by Julia: MY 7 STEPS BEFORE TAKING OFF TO CAMEROON