Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Cameroon
In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Cameroon, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Cameroon.
Outside of the larger urban areas, Cameroonians have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is viewed as “typical” cultural behavior or norms may be a narrow and selective interpretation, such as the perception in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Cameroon are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Cameroon, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations.
- 1 Overview of Diversity in Cameroon
- 2 What Might a Volunteer Face?
Overview of Diversity in Cameroon
The Peace Corps staff in Cameroon recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, and ages and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
The information that follows was compiled by Peace Corps/ Cameroon Volunteers and staff and is intended to stimulate thought and discussion. It is important to recognize that these issues may or may not have an impact on your own Volunteer experience. Rather, they are here to make all Volunteers aware of issues that a particular group may have to deal with. As you read them, you might ask yourself, “How would I feel if that happened to me?” and “How could I help a fellow Volunteer if it happened to him or her?”
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Cameroon is a traditional, patriarchal culture. Although there are several women in positions of great influence in large cities and towns, the people of Cameroon in general have not had much experience with women who take on professional roles or who live independently of their families. Cameroonian male colleagues, supervisors, and acquaintances may make unwanted advances toward single women. This problem is less common for female Volunteers who have been accepted into their communities and who have built a network of female friends and counterparts. Learning to live and work constructively in the context of the differing status of women and men and standards of behavior (including sexual behavior) is probably the greatest challenge for female Volunteers in Cameroon. To address this issue Peace Corps/ Cameroon has a Volunteer/staff committee that works on important issues of girls’ and women’s empowerment.
There are a few important adaptations that female volunteers should make in order to protect themselves and reduce harassment. In Cameroon, when a woman looks directly into a man's eyes it indicates that she is propositioning the man regardless if she is doing it while saying "no". Also, when a man scratches the palm of a woman's hand with his finger during a hand shake, it means that the man is propositioning the woman. The best response to unwanted advances is to ignore the person and look in the other direction. If you cannot avoid the person, remain aloof, avert your eyes, and do not smile. In busy market areas, walk with determination with eyes fixed forward and ignore all cat calls. Protect yourself by being constantly aware of your surroundings. Avoid isolated or remote areas where an attack could occur unnoticed. Do not walk alone at night regardless of the distance or the proximity to your home. Lastly, always carry enough money with you so that in the event that you are mugged, the thief will be satisfied and not become violent.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
Cameroonians may make some stereotypic assumptions about Volunteers of color. They may not believe that you are American, commenting that “you don’t look American.” African-American Volunteers may be treated as Cameroonians according to local norms (which can be positive and negative). They may be asked if there really are black people in America and may be called a white person in the local dialect. Asian-American Volunteers are often considered Chinese even when they have a different ethnic origin. They may also be assumed to be martial arts experts and asked to demonstrate their expertise. Children and others may call Asian Americans “heehaw,” a mutation of “Ni Hao Ma,” a greeting in Mandarin Chinese.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Older Volunteers are usually accorded respect, since Cameroonian culture recognizes that wisdom and life experience come with age. Older Volunteers may experience difficulty, however, in obtaining support from and mixing with younger Volunteers. In contrast, Volunteers in their early 20s may find that they have to make an extra effort to be accepted as professional colleagues, since Cameroonians of that age often are still pursuing education.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers=
Homosexuality is illegal in Cameroon and not publicly discussed or acknowledged except in very rare cases. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers in Cameroon may feel that they have to hide their sexuality so as not to risk job effectiveness. In 2006, there was a major public crackdown on those believed to be behaving in homosexual activity. Dealing with constant questions about girlfriends and boyfriends, marriage, and children is something that many Volunteers face on a regular basis. Forming a support network of gay, lesbian, or bisexual friends may be difficult. Peace Corps/ Cameroon works to ensure a supportive, tolerant, and safe community for all Volunteers and staff. You may find more helpful information at www.geocities.com/~lgbrpcv/, a website affiliated with the National Peace Corps Association that provides information on serving as a gay or lesbian Volunteer.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
In general, Cameroonians are familiar with most Christian and Muslim traditions but have little familiarity with Judaism, Buddhism, Unitarianism, and other world religions. Cameroon, however, is an ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse country and, as such, is tolerant of different religions. Cameroonians may not always agree with your beliefs, but it is unlikely that they will act negatively toward you because of them.
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
While there is a large population of Cameroonians with disabilities, care and accommodation for these individuals are carried out informally and within the family or community. There is very little infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities.
As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Cameroon without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Cameroon staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations to enable them to serve safely and effectively.