August 29, 2017 at 10:48 am

Happy Beginnings | Alum Praises Peace Corps Experience in Cameroon

Sean Potts in March 2016 in traditional Kenyan dress at the Guzang Queen Mother's funeral.

Sean Potts in March 2016 in traditional Kenyan dress at the Guzang Queen Mother’s funeral. Cultural integration was an important part in opening doors and being accepted by the community in this very social culture.

Editor’s Note: The Happy Beginnings series features recent College of Arts & Sciences graduates who are getting started in careers, graduate school and service.

Two months after he graduated from Ohio University, Sean Potts ’12 he signed on with AmeriCorps VISTA, working with Blackfeet Manpower, a tribal welfare agency located on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana.

Potts earned a B.A. in Anthropology from the College of Arts & Sciences at Ohio University.

While on the reservation he performed many functions for his host organization, including conducting the national Point-of-Interest Homelessness Survey for Browning (the Blackfeet Nation’s capital) and the surrounding areas. He also managed an Elder Chore Service in which Blackfeet youth assisted at-risk senior citizens with household functions, revitalizing a community garden, and working on elder care issues.

Potts moved back home to the Akron area after his service. After working at a local consignment store for several months, he took a job behind the front desk at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

He really enjoyed his time at the museum because he participated in a lot of museum activities and learned about museum administration and culture. He also had the opportunity to volunteer in the archaeology lab, cataloging excavations alongside Dr. Brian Redmond.

Choosing the Peace Corps

After a year at the Cleveland museum, Potts decided it was time to extend his cultural and professional horizons.

He had always considered joining the Peace Corps and wanted to experience work in the field of development. A few month’s wait and a plethora of medical tests later, he was invited to serve as an agricultural volunteer in Cameroon.

“I believe my agricultural and cross-cultural experience from Montana as well as my studies at OHIO made my application competitive,” he says.

“Drawing from lessons I learned in Haley Duschinski’s applied anthropology course, I made the case that my background in cultural anthropology would be an asset towards my integration into my local community and in managing cultural differences throughout my service.”

The very day he was invited to serve in the Peace Corps, Potts also was invited to teach English in China.

He says the choice was made easy when he considered the unique experience offered by the Peace Corps to live in a place seldom visited by outsiders while promoting cross-cultural understanding and assisting people through agricultural development.

He boarded a plane to Cameroon by way of Belgium in September of 2015.

Cameroon and the Peace Corps

Since the end of his pre-service training in the South Region of Cameroon, he has spent the last one and a half years in the village of Guzang in the North West Region.

Located on the border between the Bamenda Grasslands and the forests of the South West Region, Guzang is the economic heart of Batibo subdivision. It is a community of farmers, entrepreneurs, and tradesmen, as well as teachers and civil servants that commute to the subdivisional and regional capitals of Batibo and Bamenda, though over 75 percent of the population is involved in agriculture.

“Moghamo” is the name of its people, its language, and the area of 22 villages that constitute the Batibo subdivision. Each village still retains their traditional government structures as “fondoms,” each still having its “fon” (king or chief bearing the prefix His Royal Highness) that continues to dispense justice and maintain traditional social and religious rights as they have since around the 16th century.

‘True Country Man’

Peace Corps promotes integration into a volunteer’s host community as much as possible and this has led Potts towards a two-year experiment in participatory observation that, while not precisely academic, has been significantly informed by his time at Ohio University.

“Over the past 18 months I have done what I think to be a decent job at becoming a ‘true country man,'” Potts says.

“I am a consistent fixture of my community, walking around Guzang sporting my country bag, greeting people in the local language and pidgin and exchanging cola nuts with old men on the roadside. On market day, every eight days, I can be found talking with farmers or discussing current events in one of the many mimbo houses over a horn of raffia palm wine. (Batibo is considered to be the palm wine capital of Cameroon, even the world, and the sweet, fast-fermenting drink is vastly important to the economy and culture of the Moghamo people).”

Being this integrated and accepted by his community has opened the door to comparative study of cultural attitudes and values that would be unavailable to most.

“I am very grateful for the social, economic, political, and religious perspectives Cameroonians have shared with me during my time here,” Potts continues.

“By contrast, I am simultaneously living as a complete outsider, evidence by daily events ranging from children yelling “whiteman!” at the top of their lungs to sentences almost poetically start with “The thing you do not understand about Cameroon is….”

Despite navigating American and Cameroonian cultural differences, mainly attitudes towards punctuality, the work he does has been moving very well.

Model Farmers

Peace Corps Cameroon’s new agricultural framework calls for volunteers to work with no more than ten farmers to improve their agricultural and financial skills and bring them up to be model farmers in the community.

Cameroonians are very motivated to adopt new methods if they are demonstrated to succeed; by demonstrating the advantages of record keeping and integrated farming, Potts’ model farmers will serve as examples to other community members to close waste cycles, save money, invest in their farms, and treat their agricultural enterprises more like businesses.

He has been working primarily with five farmers on implementing sustainable, low-input enterprises while limiting dependence on expensive farm inputs through organic fertilizer production and integrated pest management. He has also conducted many community training independent of his work with the five model farmers. These have focused on beekeeping, mushroom production, bokashi composting, and rabbit husbandry.

Bees and Rabbits

Bees require a low initial investment (e.g. hive construction) and yield tremendously high returns over the lifespan of a colony. Potts and his local host NGO have held several community training on honey production and Kenyan Top-Bar hives have become a commonplace throughout Guzang and the surrounding communities.

They have also formed a Moghamo Bee Farmers’ Cooperative. Bokashi is a Japanese variety of compost that yields extremely effective and inexpensive organic fertilizer. All five of Potts’ pilot farmers have shifted all or a majority of their fertilizer inputs toward bokashi, and the practice is also swiftly becoming ubiquitous in their community.

Rabbits have tremendous potential for marketing and consumption and can help eliminate the costs of purchasing imported animal feed like one requires for poultry, as rabbits primarily consume weeds that grow in the backyard. There is a large market for oyster mushrooms in the major population centers in Cameroon and neighboring Nigeria, and Potts recently received a small grant for the construction of mushroom spawn centers throughout his community which will follow-up on training he have conducted throughout his service.

“I’m very proud of the work I’ve done here and it is nice to see small demonstrable successes, but I still feel bridges I am building between the United States and Cameroon through the friendships I have made will be among the most important legacies I will leave.”

Potts plans to take advantage of the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows program for returned Peace Corps Volunteers and is looking at graduate programs in history and anthropology, as well as programs in public policy, international affairs anddevelopment, agriculture, and natural resource management. It’s a lot to consider, but he is confident he will find the program that will both engage him fully and build on his the experience he has gained since his time in Athens.

Food Security

For now, however, Potts will spend a third year as Peace Corps Volunteer Leader for agricultural resource management, managing a Peace Corps model farm in Mbengwi, North West Cameroon and disseminating improved animal breeds and crop varieties to all the agricultural Peace Corps Volunteers in Cameroon. He is a strong supporter of the current agriculture program and is excited about having a bigger, nationwide role while it is still in its infancy.

Potts has also taken a strong interest in issues of food security, having seen firsthand how improved crop dissemination, agricultural diversification, and nutrition training can impact the health of a community.

“Whatever the future has in store I know it will be greatly informed by my time with the Peace Corps. Being here has taught me many lessons and has made me a better citizen of the United States and the world. I would certainly recommend Peace Corps service to anyone interested and I feel the OHIO community will continue to be well represented in the organization.”

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