FRUIT FOR THE FUTURE
Starting from September 8th of last year, I have been a Peace Corps volunteer here in this beautiful country of Cameroon. In just a matter of days, my fellow volunteers and I, all young people who had not known each other before September 8th 2015, went from Yaoundé airport to a yellow bus that brought us to the training site in Mengong, South Cameroon. As the bus rolled up to my future home for the next 3 months (the timeframe for initial training in Mengong), I couldn’t help but ask myself: What did I get myself into? But now it’s nearly a full year after that moment and I can’t help but think: What would I be without Cameroon? What would I be without the very new and enriching experiences in Mengong? What would I be without my shaky transition between training and post? Without my time to learn life lessons here in Bamenda?
My name is Chelsea Grant (the two lifted fingers in the photo are directly behind me) and I am a Peace Corps health volunteer stationed at the Church Coordination Office for Catholic Relief Services. And I absolutely love serving here in Bamenda, Cameroon. While volunteering at CRS, I have the luxury of not only assisting in the formation of key systems and services for children in need but also meeting, sharing, and spending time with these beautiful souls. I feel as though the time I spend with these children, no matter how little it may be, allows me to get closer to them. I use the opportunities to spend time with these children as moments to share my own story and to teach them the little knowledge that I have. Ultimately, I better understand their unique stories. That in itself brings me so much joy. I learn while they learn. We learn together and from each other. Outside of the office, I further use my spare time to meet with the young people here in Bamenda town, whether through volunteering in schools or dedicating myself to youth conferences here and in the North West at large.
So what brought me to Open Dreams? I met Akaba James from this innovative organization, Open Dreams, at an event dedicated to interfaith dialogue hosted by YALI (Young African Leaders Initiative) fellows here in Bamenda and in Cameroon. There, James shared about his experiences in the USA and as an educator in Cameroon and the work Open Dreams is doing in the field. Behold, on Saturday July 9th, 2016, I had my very first encounter with this year’s mentees at Open Dreams. That day, I arrived at the center a few minutes before 11 am to be welcomed by one of the mentees, Vanessa, who ever so sweetly asked me to join her and the other mentees in the classroom. Right there and then, I introduced myself as a Peace Corps Health volunteer, and after a fire round of introductions, I asked the group “What do you want to be when you grow up”? The very first answer I got was “Doctor”. Hearing this, I rushed to the mentee and gave her a strong “high-5” or a “knock me cinc” as it is called here in Bamenda. It was there and then that I realized how closely the dreams and goals of the mentees in that classroom aligned with my very own dreams and goals. Once I got all the mentees to share their career aspirations, I shared my very own.
Ever since middle school, I have dreamed of becoming a neurosurgeon. After reading Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands, I was simply inspired to save lives and to use my affinity for science and math to serve others. And interestingly, this very dream to become a soldier in the medical field is shared by about half the students in the Open Dreams program. What draws me closer to the mentees at Open Dreams is the thought that despite the differences in locational bringing up, we all hope to make the most of the very little given to us and to share our talents with humanity. I remember when my fellow students in high school were enrolling in programs to prepare for college admission and the SAT, I had wished so badly to join them. Unfortunately, these programs cost more money than my parents could afford. So, I made very good use of the SAT practice book offered in my neighborhood’s library. I am in no way saying that my experience with academic aspiration is the same as those of the mentees at Open Dreams. My country of birth, the United States of America, has drastically different educational systems, protocols, and opportunities in general. However, what many people, and many Cameroonians for that matter, fail to realize is that America is not a monolith. It is filled with the rich, the middle class, and the poor in the same way that Cameroon is. It is made up with the good, the bad, and the ugly, in the same way that the rest of the world is. That none withstanding, it cannot be denied that there is still much work to be done in Cameroon in terms of bringing this nation into the 21st century.
And that’s where Open Dreams comes in. I strongly believe in the mission of this organization and in the drive of its chosen mentees. This country has much potential and a great bulk of it is held in the palms of this nation’s youth. During each of the four sessions that I led with the mentees during the past month, I have realized how talented these children, and soon to be young adults, truly are. All they need is the right fruits, the right pedagogues to keep them on the very right path that they have been following during their beginning years. During my sessions with the mentees, I strived to reveal to them the importance of gender equity and equality in the march for development in Cameroon. It was to my surprise, first of all, that half of the mentees were themselves intelligent young women. Considering the fact that education is greatly pushed towards boys and young men in this country, this statistic is more than encouraging. Hearing, seeing, and believing that these young women aspired to be doctors filled me with joy, especially given the current statistics for Cameroon which demonstrate the majority of this nation’s doctors to be males. So, from the very first day, and from the very first question asked, I knew that this group of young people was special. I knew that this group represented the ground breaking future of this beautiful nation.
I have truly enjoyed teaching this cycle’s Open Dreams mentees, and I definitely look forward to working with the chosen mentees of the future. Teaching these future leaders about the ties between HIV and Gender, revealed to me and to them (I hope!) that all our knowledge in science and health is empty without connections to reality and to society. Knowing the life cycle of HIV and knowing the three laws of Newtonian physics is not enough without knowing how these facts in science relate to real people and to real life problems. Throughout my time with the students, I drew ties to news aired on BBC concerning HIV prevalence in adolescent girls here in Sub Saharan Africa as well as news capturing the violent rape culture in India; all this to illustrate that the content of my lesson plans applied to today’s world. As I challenged these students to take information given to them, to make connections between the dots, and to thereafter teach and share what they have learned with each other, I have repeatedly been astonished by the intelligence and the natural leadership qualities inherent in them. Each session had opportunities for the mentees to express their opinions, to counter each other’s thoughts, and to come to a final judgement. And during each session, I encountered new ideas and new arguments that hadn’t even occurred to me.
Being with the mentees over the past few weeks reminded me of how far I have come since I was in their very seats how many years ago and it equally showed me how far these students will go thanks to the opportunity bestowed unto them thanks to Open Dreams. These students are young, bright, talented, motivated, and above all highly favored. They have the world at their finger tips and they do not even know it. Teaching these students about HIV and Gender has, I hope, opened them to the great big world around them and has shown them that it is ok and very much acceptable to discuss something as taboo as and as natural as sex (so long as there is someone to appropriately guide them along the way!). These mentees are first and foremost future leaders in the making and they deserve the very best fruit accessible here in Cameroon. I am only happy and honored to be among this very fruit given to these future leaders.