IT’S VERY DIFFICULT TO LEARN TO DRIVE A STICK-SHIFT IN A THIRD WORLD COUNTRY!
This may sound simple and obvious enough. You have to drive stick in most foreign nations, so learn it beforehand. For the generation before us, this was quite a bit easier since most learned to drive with a stick shift. It was a good mix as we were growing up, but now, most people opt for automatics. They are easier to learn. When we were getting ready to go to Cameroon, I (Kory) took the time out with a friend at GIAL to learn stick shift. It wasn’t a piece of cake but within two weeks, I felt comfortable with it. We wanted to teach Cara as well, but busyness prevented us. We figured that she could learn once in country. Big mistake. When I learned, I went to a big empty parking lot, where I could focus on the task of learning how to shift, rather than worry about other obstacles around me. In Cameroon, such opportunities were not present. The only places that Cara could learn were on dirt roads around the SIL compound in Yaoundé or around the EELC headquarters in Ngaoundéré. Both places were away from regular traffic but posed their own challenges. At SIL, there are decent sized hills which made it difficult. At the EELC, there is a lot of foot traffic and narrow roads with large ditches on either side. While these challenges are not insurmountable, they can be daunting.
Learning to drive in the city was pretty much out of the question. It is extremely challenging and dangerous, even for those who are experienced with driving a standard. Some have described driving in urban areas of Cameroon (and other third world countries) like playing a video game. You have to be aware of the movements of EVERYTHING near or on the road at all times and be ready to react rapidly. There are motos (motorcycles) zooming around you, animals walking into the road unexpectedly, people walking into the road or along the road without really looking what traffic is doing, kids playing near the road, and other vehicles which can pass into oncoming traffic without warning. It is not uncommon to have vehicles trying to pass on very curvy roads or hills (sometimes forcing you to pull into a ditch in order to prevent a head-on collision). Another interesting predicament is that, when signaling that you would like to turn left, some take that to mean that you are telling them to pass you on the left, thus blocking your turn. Defensive driving is taken to a whole new level, that’s for sure! All this to say: Cara did not feel comfortable learning to drive. When the ability to travel is limited, so are many other opportunities (ability to run errands being one of the major ones). While Cara’s inability to drive was not the reason we ultimately came back to the US after a brief time in Cameroon, this was something certainly within our control which could have helped our family’s adjustment to life in Cameroon.
Please learn from our mistake. Learn to drive stick before going overseas. Take the time to obtain this skill. Find someone who has a stick shift and make them teach you. Let them know that this is a significant contribution to your adjustment to the new culture and ultimately your ministry. The more you can do to prepare here, the less adjustment you will have to make “over there.”
A few other skills that we would say are extremely important to learn in your home culture beforehand: cooking completely from scratch, basic medical care, and basic vehicle/household repair. We had training/experience in all of these and were thankful for it. If there is time, sewing and gardening could also be useful but not what we would consider “vital” (nor terribly difficult to learn cross-culturally as needed).