Throwing Caution to the Wind in Cameroon

May 18, 2016

During my Peace Corps pre-service safety training in Cameroon, no words resounded louder in my head than the caution, “DON’T DRINK THE WATER.” Every volunteer was issued a large two bucket water purification system that we practiced putting together as a group of 54 wide-eyed trainees.  The local water was dangerous, contaminated, dirty, and would wreak utter chaos on our systems, we were told. When in a new country it’s wise to heed the advice of those that have come before, so as newbies in the country we carted around our bottled water with unquestioned diligence. Never be without purified water; the water that kept you safe from the impending doom associated with water from any other source. After months of drinking bottled water during training, I packed my water filter and headed to my village in the extreme north of the country.

All the warnings about the water ran through my mind, but were silenced as I took the plastic cup from her. I dipped that cup into the water and drank.

It’s easy to be scared of everything when you understand nothing. Facing the dry heat of the north and surrounded by strangers speaking five different languages, all looking at me as if I could break into song and dance at any moment, I had very little solid information that I could hold onto in my daily life. But I knew that I COULD NOT DRINK THE WATER. That is, if it hadn’t passed through my fancy filter. It was something that I had control over.

It was the culture in the north for each compound to have at least one or two large water basins, called “canneries” , that were used by families and visitors to drink from. They were handmade, beautiful, dug deep into the ground and placed in the shade. Even on the hottest of days the water from the basins would stay cool and still, as the porous clay pots would reject the violent heat coming from outside. Women and children would dip their hollowed and dried gourd bowls, spoons, and plastic cups into the water and drink. I would witness this as I sat with my plastic water bottle sitting hot in my lap, the label peeling off and the water tasting like melting plastic and chemicals.

Something weird happened after a while, and I was not so proud to be carrying that water bottle.  What I had first perceived as security was turning into a hindrance. I knew I was being ‘safe’, but I also knew that I was missing out on something.

It’s easy to be scared of everything when you understand nothing.

One day, a Cameroonian friend and I went house hopping to visit some ladies out in the village. Not predicting the length of our outing, I did not go prepared with my usual plastic sidekick, and found myself in the heat of the afternoon feeling incredibly thirsty. My friend, as always, was hyper alert to my needs and asked if I needed water, as she dipped a plastic cup deep into the cool pool of the cannery for herself.  She said that she could send one of the children of the house to run to the market to get a bottle of warm water, or I could just drink. I was hit by a cathartic moment of clarity. All the warnings about the water ran through my mind, but were silenced as I took the plastic cup from her. I dipped that cup into the water and drank.

I spent the rest of time in that village freely drinking from my friends’ canneries and watching the delight spread across their faces as I accepted their hospitality and we shared the relief from hot days, long walks, and gained enough energy to laugh until the sun set. My friend told me later that my choice to accept a simple gift of water from my neighbors was instilling confidence in my community. To me, that risk was worth so much more than the possible stomachache.

It’s not exactly the best cautionary tale when it comes to sanitation, but my tale does contain a piece of advice that goes beyond my decision to drink local water. Don’t be afraid of the water. Don’t be afraid to take small risks that show people that you are present wherever you travel, and that your goal is not to move through their lives untouched and untainted. I could have gotten gravely sick and come to regret my decision, but instead it was a simple way for me to communicate to my hosting community that I was present. Drinking the water in the places you travel might not be the approach you should always take, but look for ways to engage in simple acts every day with the people you walk alongside.

I’ll drink to that.

About Caitlin Howe

Caitlin Howe has restless feet. She likes to go places, do things, hike, bike, eat, sleep and repeat. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon for two years. Currently, she lives in Springfield, Oregon as she prepares for her next adventure.

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