On March 1st, 2013, I was evacuated from my Cameroonian village because of the threat of Boko Haram. The militant Islamist group had kidnapped a French family in a neighboring region the week before. Because my village of Gaschiga was located only 10km away from the Nigerian border, the Peace Corps decided that I could either transfer to another post or end my service and return to the states.
The following two posts, Things Fall Apart and We Were Always Together, capture one of the most transformational experiences not just of my Peace Corps service, but of my life.
Things Fall Apart (written on the 28th of March, 2013)
I’ve always had a strange fascination with quotes: where they’ve originated, whose mouth they’ve left, what they’ve meant. As an idealist, they’ve given me strength and equipped me with the linguistic ammunition necessary to put a positive spin on life’s toughest lessons. Those who know me best are familiar with my addiction to writing inspirational phrases down on small white pieces of paper and hanging them everywhere, turning a closet door into a mosaic of deep thoughts and uplifting proverbs.
It is no surprise that my favorite quotations made the trek with me to Cameroon. For each of my three journals I’ve kept in Africa, for example, I’ve taped in a meaningful quote on the front page to highlight a specific, underlying theme to my service. When I started conjuring up the framework for this blog post just over a month ago, it was my plan to share with you some of those same quotes that I had hanging on my walls. Those scraps of paper that remind me to live a better life. Even though it was my intention to lead you through a “quotational tour" of my house, their significance, their place in my life, as I am learning, plans change.
My time in village has come to an end. I cannot go into specifics. God, I cannot go into ambiguities. We’ll leave it at geopolitics. Know that I am safe. But also know that I am incredibly sad. Humans are not meant to be ripped out of their communities. We are social animals. Our connections run deep and our relationships are rich in substance and meaning. This is why I feel empty inside. We bid farewells for a reason – to gain closure and acceptance for the ensuing distance that will separate us – and it is necessary to prepare for these farewells. But to just disappear, to turn your back and walk away, is a miserable thing to justify.
My first journal, as I prepared it during the sleepless night before I left for Cameroon, holds a clipping taken from the Allegheny Campus validating my reasoning for going to Africa, my rationale for putting so many miles between my loved ones and me: an interview I had done regarding my upcoming service with the Peace Corps. When they asked me why I had decided to join, I was quoted as saying, “...the thing that I hope to gain most from Peace Corps, is sort of an opportunity to just live my life, as crazy as that sounds…It’s just that I’m not ready to continue my education. I’m not ready to get a job. I don’t want to sit behind a desk. I just want to live.” That quote steered me through my first five months in Cameroon. It justified my absence from my family and friends in the states. It acted as the flame to my hot air balloon. It got me to my next chapter.
The start of my second journal nearly aligned with my move to post. On the inside cover you will find a cutting from a card given to me by a good friend, Lyndsay Steinmetz, with the words “And for everything else, remember that it is a process.” Those words could not have been a more constant reminder to me. The ups and downs of my first year as a volunteer. The failures. The successes. The emotions. The questioning. But in the front of my mind, I knew that if I just trusted the process, for another hour, just one more day, until next week, things would work themselves out. And they always did. I made it to journal three.
And as I sit here today, tears in my eyes, I am left in disbelief. What is this process I trusted? I had a family in village. I played with their kids. I ate dinner with them. We shared jokes. They were a sounding board for my ideas. They were there to comfort me and offer me support. I learned to read their expressions, and they, mine. To them, I will forever be “Mister Shane,” and forever in my ears, I will hear them saying good bye to that name as I drove away from them on a moto, silently sobbing, being forcefully torn from my village of warmth and comfort and home and sent into a life of uneasiness and limbo. What had I so blindly thrown my trust behind? Why did I so naively follow my desire to “just live my life” without the foresight to think that I could end up being hurt so badly in the long run?
My third quote. One that I have a hard time reading right now, let alone writing, is taken from my second favorite president in American history, Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again…who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.”
I have fought in this arena for over 20 months. I have literally been covered in dirt and dust and mud and sweat and blood. But I have always pushed onwards. Enticed by the prospect of a worthy cause or perhaps more likely by the implicit “triumph of high achievement” I assumed I would one day obtain. Honestly, the latter part of T.R.’s quote never meant much to me. Failure was never an option. I didn’t consider it a risk. I would have pushed to the end of my service no matter what. Yet, I suppose the possibility always existed; failure and success are each sides to the same coin.
There are a handful of pages left in my journal. Even though I am a few weeks away from a fourth edition, I have had the quote earmarked for some time, already written on a small piece of parchment tucked into the last pages of my current diary. It’s from Julia Glass' novel,Three Junes, and it goes like this: “Here we are – despite the delays, the confusion, and the shadows en route – at last, or for the moment, where we always intended to be.”
Where I “always intended to be”? My current situation? Never. I imagined myself at a joyful close of service conference with my peers, spending our last days in country together reminiscing about the trials and tribulations, the memories and laughs, boarding a plane to return to the states together. Never this.
But intentional or not, I am here. My world shattered a month ago. And as I sit in the present, trying to place the pieces back together, I’ve realized that the quotations that I so faithfully lived by before, are merely words on pieces of paper. There was never any essence, no connection to the larger connotations. Wanting to “just live my life” is asking for experiences, both good and bad. I needed to be kicked in the heart, needed to un-shield my soul and allow it to weather the storms of grief and sorrow, needed to learn that trusting the process means something larger than just steering myself down the one-way street I so confidently positioned myself onto. Life is an interconnected labyrinth of neat city streets, winding country roads, and obscure detours: a fluid maze of unpredictable experiences. A destination does not exist. Only more journeys. I cannot complain when I reach an unforeseen intersection because it’s those surprises that make life interesting. It will take time for me to fully accept that this wasn’t my fault. I didn’t fail. The events that ultimately ended my service were out of my control – out of the Peace Corps’ control.
For my friends and peers that I leave behind, I ask you for your understanding and I wish you the best of luck in your remaining service. Please know that this decision was not an easy one for me to make. It simply came down to the fact that having less than six months in a new village didn’t seem fair to either a new community or me. Our last period of service is meant to be delegated for tying up loose ends with work, travelling to visit other people’s posts, and preparing to return to the states. I want neither an umbrella of guilt hovering over me nor a disappointed community behind me as I approach the end of my service with close friends.
To my family and friends in the states to whom I return, I beg for your patience and sensitivity during the next few months. Not to be harsh, but recognize that I do not feel like I am returning home. My home was here, at least it was meant to be for a bit longer. To quote an acquaintance of mine who I respect very much, “It is difficult for a nomadic mind to have just one home.” This is how I feel. Your love and warm wishes have kept me standing these past two years and I know that even though I have mixed feelings about coming back to America, I very much look forward to being closer to that fountain of support: those of you I love so much. We will get through this together.
And unless something radically changes in the next week, I believe that this will be my final blog post. This wound will take some time to mend itself into a scar. I leave the arena neither a victor nor a loser, but rather, a player lucky enough to have played the game. A road spans out in front, leading me towards a nonexistent horizon. And I will follow it. Though bruised and beaten down, I walk away a better, wiser, stronger man than I was at the beginning of this experience. Cameroon and the people I’ve met here have forever changed me. For that, I will be forever thankful.
We Were Always Together (written on the 28th of April, 2013)
From my place on the floor I neither know how I got here nor how to escape. So, I continue to sit here in the metaphorical pit of confusion, staring up at the distant tease of sunshine. My gaze falls upon the pocked walls of my prison, potential handholds, ascending ever so vertically to freedom. I sigh. It has been nearly two months since I was evacuated from my northern village. Eight weeks of analyzing two very different doors. The first leading me back to the United States; the second opening to a third post here in Cameroon. To live in a world of pros and cons, a drawn out internal struggle where everyone’s advice contradicts everyone else’s advice, a time where days and weeks are smeared together and sedated. This is life as a displaced Peace Corps volunteer.
After so many weeks of just sitting around, waiting, contemplating, considering, I finally made up my mind. Not really. I had set a deadline for myself. I would let that lackadaisical leviathan that is Time decide. The date came and passed. The first of April. I reached my hand out and grasped the familiar door knob leading to America. And paused. Although I bid farewells to friends, both American and Cameroonian, and my suitcases were packed full of souvenirs and mementos from my African experience, my feet still felt trapped in the cement of indecision.
People say that when you’re lost, it is best to stay put. Someone will find you. Help will come. It took getting to that point in my head where every thought negated the next and my soul felt as if it had put through a blender to arrive at this realization. In the maelstrom that were those frenzied, pensive weeks, it never struck me to just stop. To sit down. Not in dejection or failure or concession. But to rest. And to think. About where I came from instead of where I was going. How I got here instead of how to get there.
I literally got here as a result of an evacuation. I figuratively got here as a result of my support system in Peace Corps Cameroon: my fellow volunteers, my friends, my peers. Knowingly or not, over the past two weeks, they have reminded me why I want to stay here and finish my service.
I was ripped away from my village community abruptly. That was devastating. I was not prepared to tear myself away from my volunteer community as well. Why add pain to pain? I am one to thrive in these close knit social fabrics. To allow the loosening of one thread unravel the rest of my cloth seems ridiculous. There is still much to get out of these next few months.
So I stay. To serve out my contract. To finish what I started. To continue to discover the richness of Cameroon. To bask in its culture. To live in a city – Bamenda – and work in partnership with Heifer International. To enjoy everything that my last chapter of service has to offer. To build character. To push my limits. To grow stronger. To live my life.
Thank you for all of your warm thoughts and kind words over these past two months. For those of you who were with me at the brink, who were tough enough to watch me take a long look at the vastness that lie ahead and who now welcome me back into your ranks of camaraderie and friendship, I am forever indebted to you. Although antagonizing in the moment, I now find that experience of standing at the cliff of departure, slowly sticking out my foot, and then turning around and walking back, electrifying. A true, albeit nonconventional, adrenaline rush.
Let’s wrap this up. It takes almost losing something before you can fully appreciate it. Today, at this point in time, I feel as though I am in a higher place in my service. The lenses have cleared, the fog has lifted, the chaos makes sense. Cameroon, you can’t get rid of me: I’m staying. Now, more than ever, I know what I want out of these next six months.