This time last year, I was living far from my hometown of Seattle in Mvengue, a small village in rural Cameroon, the only American within a 35-mile radius. I was there as a Peace Corps volunteer, working with the doctor who headed the local health clinic, Clovis, whom the entire community affectionately called “docta.” I lived a short walk from the health center, down a small dirt road and across the town soccer field. I fetched my water from the local spring and did my laundry by hand there on Sunday mornings with my neighbors. I shopped at the local market, stopping to talk to shop owners and friends. Over the months, Mvengue became my home, and my neighbors and co-workers my community.
There is no single definition of what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer: The experience differs depending on the volunteer’s job assignment, country and community. As a community health educator, my job was to help educate my community about HIV/AIDS prevention, malaria prevention, and maternal and child health. I worked through the health clinic in Mvengue and traveled to nearby villages with Clovis, clinging to the back of his moped as we bounced along potholed roads and dirt paths, then ducking into houses to visit patients. I also engaged with the community in Mvengue to promote health education by working with school health clubs, community organizations and local soccer teams.
Other volunteers, in Cameroon and around the world, had other jobs. Education volunteers taught science, math and other subjects. Agriculture volunteers worked to help create plans for sustainable farming. Other volunteers served in yet other capacities. Despite the differences in assignments and geography, the central tenets of the Peace Corps remained constant at every post: Volunteers live immersed in a community, where we work to increase local capacity. As volunteers, we represent America to these communities, and, upon our return to America, we become representatives of these communities to other Americans. In addition to the substantive contributions we work to achieve, we also seek to foster international cooperation and goodwill.
The Peace Corps has operated continuously, with these same goals, since its founding by President John Kennedy 60 years ago this week. But, in March 2020, COVID-19 led to the first global recall of volunteers in Peace Corps history, ending my service, along with that of the other approximately 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers around the world. I was heartbroken to leave Mvengue. I had hoped to have more time to make a meaningful difference in the community, and to be able to pass the work to another Peace Corps volunteer to continue, but there was much that I was not able to accomplish, and no guarantee when volunteers might return to Mvengue. I was also devastated to leave a place I had started to consider home, where I had developed friendships and a sense of belonging.
Peace Corps Cameroon has a saying, “On est ensemble,” which means, simply, “We are together.” Although similar to the common American phrase “we’re all in this together,” I find it more powerful. Rather than conveying merely a sense of joint struggle, it also suggests to me the comfort that stems from the simple fact of being together.
Certainly, there will be much work to do to recover from the medical, social and economic turmoil that we currently are experiencing in America. As we work to rebuild and improve America, however, we must remember that “we” means more than just America. The sustainable development work Peace Corps volunteers have conducted in communities around the world, and the international understanding they have created, are unique and valuable. Peace Corps has always focused on the human aspect of international development, recognizing and fostering global togetherness. I look forward to the day when it is safe to send volunteers abroad, and Peace Corps can resume its pursuit of that goal.