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Modern Peace Corps connects with traditions

My View: Service in changing Cameroon city lifts lives of two Northwest volunteers


by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF MOLLIE AND SHAUN WILLIS - Mollie Willis is a Peace Corps community economic volunteer who is training Cameroon women to sell their handicrafts through Etsy.With its microbreweries and running trails, Portland will always hold a special place in our hearts that long for the Northwest. But we have found comfort in a new “home” we have created for ourselves in Nkongsamba, Cameroon.

We are Shaun and Mollie Willis. We met while working at Portland’s Mercy Corps. We knew it was rare to find someone else who shared the same passion and love for seeing, exploring and working all around the world.

After a six-month stint together teaching English in China, and a great few weeks backpacking through Southeast Asia which ended in an engagement at Angkor Wat, the Peace Corps became the obvious next step.

Both advocates of development and desiring careers in development, our time in the Peace Corps will give us crucial firsthand field experience.

When we received our Peace Corps placement for Cameroon, we began to envision our lives as volunteers full of dirt roads, small mud huts and laughing children. We were correct in the dirt roads and smiling children part, as there are ample opportunities to talk and play with our happy neighborhood kids and walk on the dirt road into town.

However, since arriving in country on June 1, we have realized that we are serving in a modernized version of the Peace Corps.

Modern technology

A major focus of the remaining year and a half commitment we have left in Nkongsamba is to find ways to modernize the city. The need to modernize isn’t solely for the sake of being up-to-date, but rather, to allow Nkongsamba to produce competitive global citizens. Without developing the technology, labor force and modern practices, Nkongsamba will only be left behind in this ever-changing world.

A colorful couple, Shaun and Mollie Willis were with Portland's Mercy Corps before working in Cameroon as part of the Peace Corps.In small ways, we are trying to shape our projects as Peace Corps volunteers to be centered on increased technological education, access or use. Shaun, an education and computer science volunteer, has begun working with the local university’s students, teaching computer software and business classes. Mollie, a community economic volunteer, has trained a co-op of women who produce handicrafts to use Etsy as a way to globalize their business, while facilitating cultural exchange between Cameroon and America.

Together, we have kicked off a weekly cross-sector public service announcement program with the one and only local radio station in Nkongsamba. The radio, a new tech-based asset for the city, began shortly after we arrived in July, and it is a great use of relatively modern technology to increase the knowledge and skill levels of the population.

Focusing on health

In addition to the technological side of modernization, we are also focusing on modernizing the realm of health care. We have, thankfully, established a close working relationship with a local progressive association. In February, we will enter into the monitoring and evaluation phase of an innovative family planning program geared at encouraging women to choose when and if they become pregnant.

Following new international development guidelines, we will begin a multidimensional health program in the New Year consisting of a community garden, teaching nutrition education and training aerobics instructors, all with the aim of reducing deaths from noncommunicable diseases, like heart disease, which claim many lives throughout Cameroon.

From the notes and projects left by volunteers years before us, to the same oath every volunteer has proclaimed when swearing in as Peace Corps volunteers, to the legacy of John F. Kennedy’s creation, it is evident that the Peace Corps has been a standing institution of global peace and change.

Yet, serving as two Peace Corps volunteers in the 21st century proves that the world is not the same place it was when the Peace Corps was born. We constantly find ourselves wondering how to bridge the gap between the cultural history of the Peace Corps, the traditional lifestyle of the Cameroonian people and the ever-moving, globalized modern world.

Portland natives Mollie and Shaun Willis expect to finish their Peace Corps service in the summer 2014. Shaun studied community health at Portland State University. Mollie studied economics at Arizona State University.