Those ‘What Am I Doing Here?’ Moments


Usually they only last for a few seconds. A situation catches me so off guard that for a moment all I want to do is get on the first plane home to be in a place where things are comfortable and familiar and life makes sense. And then the moment passes and is replaced with a quiet certainty that I am exactly where I am meant to be. But recently I had a day when the moment stretched on to an hour and then a morning until eventually the whole day was taken up with one broken-record thought: “What am I doing here?”

As with most bad days, it started with a wardrobe issue. It was washing day and I was down to just one clean pair of shorts. The kind of shorts that I would wear every day during Australian summer, but that I only ever wear around the house here for fear that people will judge me because they are… well, short. But on this day I had little choice, so I headed down to the river in my short shorts and hoped most people weren’t up and about yet. Of course there were people congregated on every corner, and each time I tried for a polite good morning they simply looked me up and down and said nothing.

While I was washing several people gathered around as they usually do, laughing that “Whitey is washing” and telling me I was doing it all wrong. I didn’t particularly want to wash my underwear infront of them, but again it seemed I had little choice. As I was lifting my clean washing into the bucket I dropped half of it onto the ground. This caused a huge outburst of laughter. I sighed and began washing again.

After I was finally done I was sweltering hot and in need of a few peaceful moments to myself so I went further up the river for a quick swim/bath. I sensed several people watching me and tried my best to pretend they were not there. As I climbed out a lady scolded me harshly, asking didn’t I even see that people are trying to collect water to drink downstream? No, I honestly didn’t. I apologised, feeling incredibly rude and ignorant.

On the way home someone called out, “Hey, American! American!” I didn’t bother to correct him. He asked if I was the new volunteer. I told him yes. He said he had to be honest – volunteers hardly ever make any difference here. They cannot ever really understand the community, they just come for their own reasons and leave without doing any real good. I wasn’t sure how to respond, except to apologise again and feel like I was saying sorry simply for being here.

I reached my house and saw I had a visitor waiting. He told me for the fifth time that week that he can see into my soul and we were meant to be together. The first four times it was amusing, but on this day my patience was starting to wear seriously thin. Eventually he left, telling me he would buy me my favourite kind of chocolate (I suppose the inside of my soul contained that information) and come back.

As I started to clean the house two young boys appeared in my kitchen, startling me. Did they even knock on the front door? “Give us honey.” Pardon? “Give us honey.” Taking a deep breath, I asked them to at least ask nicely, but got nothing beyond blank stares. I gave them the honey. An hour later they returned with several friends who demanded honey also. I told them no, I’m sorry, but I just can’t give everyone honey or there will be none left. “You can buy more. You have much money.” I felt taken advantage of and guilty at the same time.

Later some friends came over. They asked if I was scared to live by myself when everyone knows where I live and that I’m alone. I answered honestly: yes. They told me it should be fine, but do I know any self-defence? Unfortunately they weren’t joking. Then they tell me I shouldn’t worry about the homeless man that sleeps in my garden, except don’t leave any belongings outside because he will probably steal them. And since it was going to rain that night he would probably sleep on my porch. Seeing the look on my face they tried to reassure me: Really, don’t worry, he is mostly harmless. All I could think to say was: I wish I had a dog. They told me you have to be careful if you have a dog here because if it gets out of your yard someone will poison it or worse. I did not dare ask what “worse” might mean.

They left and I immediately shut and locked the door. I stood alone in my kitchen staring at the perfectly ripe avocado I was saving for breakfast tomorrow, now half-eaten by what I could only assume was a rat. I wanted nothing more than to pick up the phone and hear a friendly voice on the other end of the line. But I cannot make international calls from my phone.

I told myself to snap out of the ridiculous pity party already. I washed the dishes, threw out the avocado and decided to watch a movie on my laptop. Something happy. With the volume turned up loud so my stomach didn’t lurch at every little noise outside (or in).

Rain started thundering on tin the roof and the power cut out. My laptop had no battery left. I briefly thought about lighting some candles, but instead gave up and crawled into bed. I stared into the complete blackness as the rain passed and was replaced with the howling wind, the creaks of the house and the possibility of a mostly harmless man creeping around my porch.

I reminded myself that what I was feeling was actually one of the biggest reasons I came here. I had always known there were going to be times I would feel afraid; lonely; tested; overwhelmed; lost. I wanted to learn to face those feelings and move unflinchingly through them to something brighter and stronger.

I resolved that tomorrow I would write a whole list of reasons why I am here. And I’d make it good.


14 thoughts on “Those ‘What Am I Doing Here?’ Moments

  1. I would really be out of my comfort zone.. When it’s in ones heart to help and not be shown appreciation or respect would cause me to feel the same. That’s when true grit has to kick in and dig deep and know that what you are doing is good and right and others may not see it that way. When know what we are made of during these experiences, but I do wonder if you have committed to a certain length of time. Remember that you are there to extend kindness and you Will reap in due time.. It’s a time of growth for you this too will pass..blessings and prayers your way..Roberta

    • Thankyou Roberta. Yes, its definitely difficult to feel comfortable some days, but most of the time I am shown a lot of appreciation and respect. I am committed to be here for one year, and as I said in a previous comment there should be another volunteer coming soon which will make a huge difference. There were always going to be ups and downs, its just part of the experience. And safety is mostly nothing more than our perception anyway. I’m certainly not going to let one bad day throw me off course!

    • There is a lot of peace here, truly, and a lot of happiness. Thankyou for being concerned but please don’t worry. It was a bad day and those feelings have in fact already passed. 🙂

      • I am a mother of five and grandmother to six…so, yes I do get concerned. I know having a another volunteer will be helpful…Take care!

  2. I worry for your safety too!! I can understand feelings of loneliness, rejection, and being taken advantage of, but when it comes to your safety, that’s a whole nother issue. Are you there with an organization that can help protect you? Remember, you’re not going to do any good if you are harmed in any way!! Please let me know

    • I’m sorry to worry you Barb! I am told it is perfectly safe, and I have no actual reason to believe otherwise. I am with an organisation yes, and they are working on getting another volunteer who will also live in the house, so I’m definitely hoping that happens sooner rather than later.

  3. Hi Cat. I’ve only been here for 16 days and have had many a ‘what am I doing here?’ moments, especially when I’m inching my way down a muddy and slippery hill to the volunteer house. The same hill I fell down a few days ago.

    I called a friend on one such occasion. She reminded me that I am not here to change Cameroon. If I make a difference to one person’s life my trip here would have been worth it.

    I’m sure you’ve already made a difference to more than one life – anything else you achieve is a bonus. Volunteers are not selfish people out for fulfilling their own needs. It takes a lot to leave the comfort and certainty of your own land to go somewhere else and at least attempt to make a difference.

    The lives you touch know this, and they are grateful – even if they don’t tell you so at the time.


    • Thankyou predencia. I’m sure you can relate to the ‘what am I doing here?’ moments very well. It’s so nice to be able to follow the adventures of others going through similar experiences.

      That is such a positive way to look at things – even the smallest positive influence is important and worthwhile. Almost every day I feel grateful to be here and certain it is where I’m supposed to be. Which is why a whole day of feeling otherwise blind-sided me a little. Luckily, the negative feelings passed as soon as the sun came up again.

      Thankyou for your support and here’s to leaving comfort and certainty for something much more interesting! 🙂

      C x

  4. Oh…it was a challenging day. I’m happy to see in your comments section that you’re also really valuing the positives…but, please, Cat, use very careful and prudent judgement and trust deeper intuition about any potential safety issues. I’m guessing the “bump in the road” of your mood yesterday was part of the normal adjustment process. Sending encouragement and steadiness your way! warmly, Kathy

    • Thanks Kathy. I absolutely always trust my intuition and it tells me that having bad days is definitely part of the process! Nothing worthwhile was ever easy, right? I will definitely keep the encouragement and steadiness in my pocket. 🙂 C

  5. Sweetie, I can completely relate. The culture shock, the distance, the absence of creature comforts and family members. Chin up darling. I promise you it will get better and you will experience momenrts that will both change your life as you know it and create memories that you will look back on with lots of smiles and internal warm fuzziness.
    I know you will exercise caution and believe that you will ensure your safety comes first.
    Sending kisses darling.
    Miss M x

    • Thankyou Michelle. I’ve already had lots of amazing moments, just none that particular day!! The next morning i was back to feeling pretty positive again. Somehow I am bouncing back much quicker than normal – I suppose because I have to. It definitely helps to have so much love and support from the other side of the world! C

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