Obligatory apologies for not updating my blog lately: sorry. Continuing, November 21, 2012 was the swearing-in date of the most recent group of trainees. Since 2012 marks the 50 year milestone of Peace Corps’ presence in Cameroon it had been decided that this swearing-in ceremony would be a special event commemorating both the swearing-in and the 50th anniversary.
Every volunteer was invited to the capital and since we were invited for official Peace Corps business travel expenses are paid for! A hefty sum for me traveling from the Far North region. I arrived in Yaounde to find our transit house in a slightly more chaotic state than the norm. Every bed was taken and since there were more heads than beds Peace Corps arranged for many people to stay with embassy families for the week. The first lady, Mme. Chantal Biya, was expected to attend so the day before the event was spent preparing the tables and doing a quick rehearsal of the first lady’s walk-through of our exhibits. There was one table for each region of Cameroon and one table for each sector (agroforestry, health, education, business development etc.), we were expected to give a short one-minute presentation at each table providing information about our respective region or sector.
I spent the morning taking shifts standing at the CED (Community Economic Development) table answering questions and handing out pamphlets to passersby. Finally, around noon the first lady arrived followed by a barrage of journalists and photographers. She made her way along the preset red carpet pathway that passed by each table.
Towards the end of the line of tables all I could make out was her enormous hairpiece floating like a loan vessel in the sea of black suit tie-wearing cameramen and bodyguards. As she slowly but surely made her way toward me, my heart rate gradually began to increase and my palms started to sweat in the same way they do when I rock-climb and look down a 50 foot vertical drop onto jagged death.
I repeated my short speech in my head over and over again hoping that it would just flow out by second nature. Finally, the mob arrives. I shake her hand, say my spiel, and awkwardly hand her a pamphlet while explaining some of the IGAs (Income Generating Activities). After the mob moved on a nice calm wave of relaxation overtook me. That was it! All that anxiety for such a short spotlight.
Afterwords, I watched myself in dread on CRTV, sort of like their national news channel. It’s bad enough to watch a home video of yourself or listen to a recording of your voice, you always look and sound a little stupider than you remember, let alone experiencing that embarrassment in the public eye. I even tried to capitalize on this fifteen minutes of fame once in the market when I returned to Mora explaining to a rice vendor, “Hey man, look at me! I shook the first lady’s hand! I met her in person! Do you understand what that means?! You should give me a discount on this rice”. Staring blankly after a brief pause he replies, “ah that’s good”, and goes on to repeat the prices of the different kinds of rice and life goes back to normal.
Even though it was a short, minuscule event that will soon be forgotten in all of Cameroonian history, this experience will probably be one of the best souvenirs I will take home from this country. A small example of why many volunteers often say that they get from their Peace Corps experience so much more than what they put in.