The story of a volunteer
Welcome to a little insight on my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon. My name is Ashley McGullam and I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon from 2018-2019. I have always been a goal-oriented person. I decided that I was going to attend UC Berkeley when I was 4 years old and at the time, I thought I was going to be an Astronaut Doctor who acts. I set my sights on being a Peace Corps Volunteer after graduating from UC Berkeley when I was 12. I joined Peace Corps after graduating from UC Berkeley with a BA in Social Welfare with an empahsis in Public Policy so some things did change from my vision, but I knew when I landed in Cameroon I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
I have always loved people, traveling and experiencing new cultures. My passion for building community brought me all around the world and right back home, Los Angeles. In this StorySpot, you will see more about my journey in Peace Corps Cameroon and get to see some of the lovely people I met along the way. I was placed in a small village of about 2,000 people in the South of Cameroon called Mvengue. Mvengue is a special place with an abundace of life. One where you will be welcomed with open arms, a plate of food and music ready to be danced to. I worked as a Health Education Coordinator at the Mvengue Hospital, primarily on Malaria prevention. I learned so much from my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Today I am using the skills I learned as a Peace Corps Volunteer daily working as the Director of Development & Community Relations for Meals on Wheels West and trying to keep up my French.
The most memorable moments
Cameroon is one of the few places where Peace Corps volunteers are still allowed to ride motorcycles because that is the primary form of transportation in Cameroon. This is me pictured carrying my breakfast in my helmet to go to training!
Here you will find my office in the hospital I worked at in Mvengue.
One of the best drinks you will ever have!
Pictured here is my Cameroonian family and I. My host mom was teaching me how to make palm oil!
This is my puppy, Beinget! Many Peace Corps Volunteers in Cameroon got dogs and cats.
The memorable moments
This was one of the first buildings I saw after navigating my way through four connecting flights to Yaounde. The building pictured here is the Peace Corps Cameroon headquarters in Yaounde. This is where we met the Peace Corps Cameroon staff for the first time and began our orientation into our new found life. Next to the Peace Corps Cameroon building were two other very important buildings. One was what was called the Case. The Case was the Peace Corps Volunteer house, which was kind of like a hostel for Peace Corps Volunteers in Cameroon. Anytime you had to do business in the Yaounde, you would stay at the case. I ended up spending quite a bit of time at the Case because I got really sick during my service and stayed at the case while I was going to different hospitals to try to figure out what was wrong. The Case was a great place to reconnect with other volunteers you hadn't seen in awhile or spend a few nights when you were giving a presentation to the Peace Corps Cameroon staff. The other important building next to the Peace Corps Cameroon Headquarters was my favorite pizza restaurant. Anytime I had to go into Yaounde, I made sure to make a pitstop for their delicious pizza. There is quite a large Ex-pat community in Yaounde and the couple who owned the pizza restaurant had actually moved to Cameroon from Italy.
Meet Beignet! Beignet was my other best friend in Mvengue. Many Peace Corps Volunteers got dogs and cats to have some of the companionship we were craving going from living with a host family and being surrounded by other Peace Corps Volunteers to living on our own. Beignet and I ventured all around Mvengue and neighboring villages. My community members thought it was funny that I let her sleep with me and had a leash for her because that was not typical for dogs in Mvengue. Mvengue had a healthy diet of eggs, rice and meat. Her favorite days were when I went to the street meat vendors to get her a special snack. I named beignet after my favorite Cameroonian snack. In just about every neighborhood I was in throughout Cameroon there was a person selling beignets on the corner. Beignets were always a favorite part of my day so I figured that was the perfect name for my dog! Some Peace Corps Volunteers bring their animals back with them when they come back to the United States, but Nicki, my best friend in Mvengue, became like a second mom to her and I knew she would be in good hands with her. Beignet still lives in Mvengue and Nicki still sends me pictures of Beignet so I get to watch her grow up.
I did not learn what it truly means to be a great host until I was greeted with the hospitality of Cameroonians. When I first got to Mvengue, one of the community leaders invited me to his home with the fellow Peace Corps Volunteers that were placed by me. Him and his wife greeted us with every traditional Cameroonian food one could think of. We danced for hours to traditional Cameroonian music and conversated about life in Mvengue. He then drove us home and made sure we were home safe. The hospitality I experienced from Clovis when I first got to Mvengue was also something I carry in my heart to this day. Clovis, my counterpart, brought me into his life in Mvengue and introduced me to basically every person in the village. He would walk to my house in the mornings and make sure I had food for the day and introduced me to my best friend in Mvengue, Nicki. Nicki's kindess was also unforgettable. Nicki tutored me in French daily and helped me navigate being a new member of the Mvengue community. Nicki is a French teacher at the school in Mvengue and she was instrumental in helping me to work on health education in the school.
Daily life during training in Foumbat was always eventful. Everyday was filled with French lessons, health training, community fairs, presentations, presentations in French and learning more about how to work on health education in an interactive manner. There was one specific day of training that was especially eventful and that is the day pictured here. The two people in the photo, Sylvie & Pascal, were transformative in my experience in Cameroon. Sylvie and Pascal led the Peace Corps Cameroon program and they made themselves available for any questions, concerns and joyful moments we had. On this day Sylvie & Pascal were telling each of the volunteers where in Cameroon we would be placed. Cameroon is actually a rather large country and to get to the North parts of Cameroon it could take a 12 hour train ride to get to from the capital. This is the day taht Sylvie and Pascal shared with me by way of the choosing hat that I would be going to Mvengue. At the end of training we went from being with a host family, surrounded by dozens of other Peace Corps Volunteers to living on our own in the village we were to be placed in. It was somewhat nerve wrecking, but extremely exciting to learn where we would be building a life in the months to come.
Motorcycles, or motos, are the primary form of transportation in Cameroon. Cameroon is actually one of the few places Peace Corps Volunteers are still allowed to use motorcycles as a form of transportation because motorcycles are just about the only way to get around in some parts of Cameroon. I was a passenger on a moto on my way to and from training everyday. The picture here is me on my way to training with my breakfast in my helmet! I also took a moto in Mvengue whenever I needed to go a longer distance than the hospital or the school. As Peace Corps Volunteers we were only allowed to ride two people to a moto, which is typically the most you would see in the United States. In Cameroon, they manage to fit quite a few more people on motorcyles. The most people I ever saw on one moto was five, but I am sure that was not the Cameroonian record. The process of getting a moto can be interesting. You flag down a moto driver on the road and place a bid for how much you want to pay depending on where you want to go. Sometimes it can take up to 5 moto drivers before you find someone who is willing to go where you want to go for the price you want to go there for.
One of the most memorable experiences I had during my time in Mvengue was in the room pictured here. My counterpart at the Mvengue Hospital, Clovis, was a midhusband. He helped to birth many of the kids in Mvengue. The hospital had a very small team and there were times when it was only Clovis and I in the hospital. During my time in Mvengue, I had the privilege of learning so many things from Clovis, including the process of birthing a child. I never delivered a child, but I helped Clovis to prep the birthing room and helped him get any materials he may need during the process. I had the privilege, with permission from the mothers of course, to watch three babies be brought into this world. I will always remember the babies, the mothers and me nearly fainting my first time bringing materials to Clovis.
Soccer was and continues to be one of my best teachers. Playing club soccer for most of my childhood taught me the importance of working together and the power of a team. Soccer continued to be a great teacher in Cameroon, but in ways I never even imagined. Playing soccer with the kids in Mevengue helped me to connect with them on another level and even helped me to teach them about the importance of bed nets to prevent malaria. My best friend in Mvengue, Nicki, and I loved to carry one of the benches out from the school and watch the soccer matches of people from throughout our community play. Soccer brought people from every age group together in Mvengue and was one of my favorite ways to spend time.
The host mom of a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who was my neighbor during training was a seamstress and she designed/made some of the best dresses I own to this day. There are many stalls in Cameroonian markets that sell any fabric you can think of. Once you pick the fabric of your dreams, you take it to a trusty seamstress who will take your measurements and sew just about anything you'd like. I had dresses, bell-bottom pants, hats and pant suits made. The reason the clothes I have from Cameroon are some of the best pieces in my wardrobe to this day is because they are made to fit you and made with love. My fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and I loved to get matching fabrics!
Cooking and eating are a few of my favorite ways to spend time with people. In Cameroon, cooking and eating with my host family during training was basically the way I started learning French. My host family and I would have a different French lessons every evening with topics ranging from commonly used items in a Cameroonian kitchen to different kinds of vegtables to my host dad's favorite music. The moments I was able to spend with my host mom and sister preparing food are some of my most fond memories from my early days in Cameroon. Once I was placed in the town I was working in, I would think back to the myriad of little things my host mom taught me about filleting a fish and preparing legumes daily. Pictured to the left is the beginning of my kitchen in my house in Mevengue. It doesn't look like much, but I was able to whip up some great meals for my neighbors and I in this kitchen. One of my favorite parts of the week during my time in Peace Corps was going to the market with my best friend, Nicki, and picking out what we wanted to make. A woman who owned one of the three restaurants in my village, Nicki and I would all cook together after we went to the market and I learned how to make some delicious Cameroonian cusines. I also learned a lot about planitng my own food and creating a greater connection with the land that was providing for me.
Peace Corps was something I knew I wanted to do from the time I was in seventh grade when a Peace Corps volunteer came to speak to my Civics Academy class. The goal of joining Peace Corps eventually led to me working in Peace Corps Public Affairs Department as an intern in the Oakland office when I attended UC Berkeley. Working in the Peace Corps office meant I was surrounded by incredible Returned Peace Corps Volunteers daily. Learning more about their experiences solidified my pursuit of being a Peace Corps volunteer. One incredibly influential person in my journey in deiciding where to go for Peace Corps (because now you have the option to choose the top three places you would like to go) was my boss in the Oakland Peace Corps office, Eddie. Eddie was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon and took the time to take me through his journey by showing me scrapbooks compiled with memories he had made in Cameroon. I knew I would never have the same experience as Eddie, but from our conversations I knew that Cameroonian culture was one I wanted to experience. At the time, I had already done quite a bit of traveling on my own and felt confident in my ability to travel solo, but preparing yourself to live in another place solo is another mental journey. The day I got my Peace Corps acceptance letter was one of the proudest days of my life and led to the start of building a life I had only ever dreamed of.
The start of my Peace Corps journey began in Washington DC where I met the other Health and Agriculture Volunteers who I would be serving along side. We all journied to Cameroon together and began training in Foumbat. During training we were placed with host families. I was and continue to be grateful for the family that brought me in and taught me how to build a life in Cameroon. I was also and continue to be extremely grateful for the myriad of Cameroonian Peace Corps teachers we had sharing their knowledge of French, Health, Agriculture and Culture with us. Training went on for about two and a half months. After training, all of the volunteers were placed in our sites across Cameroon. That is when I was placed in Mvengue!
Some fragments of service
Every service encompasses a song or two