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Journey to the Southwest

Try as I might, time is getting away from me and I'm not writing as much as I'd like to. I spent this past week in the Southwest Region of Cameroon, a part of the country I have hardly explored. The Southwest is most well known for its beautiful black sand beaches in Limbe, and for its 4000 meter Mount Cameroon, an active volcano that is the tallest mountain in all of West and Central Africa. I've climbed Mount Cameroon and visited Limbes beaches many times, and once, in 2006, I visited the region's government seat in Menji-Fontem while visiting Peace Corps volunteer Bethany Marsh. But until this past week, I had never truly seen the Southwest Region.

On Monday, Treana and Ryan Peake of the Obakki Foundation and Captain Ed Smith of ICA Canada visited our project site in Keuleng. After a short and somewhat laid-back ceremony to welcome Obakki with food, dance, and music, I departed with the Canadians to visit ICA's project locations in the deep, isolated valley that spreads between the villages of Lewoh and Bechati in the Southwest Region.

On Tuesday, with our bags loaded into a seriously tired-looking Toyota Helix, we began a full-day trek into the valley. Our entourage consisted of Treana, Ryan, Ed, myself, six other ICA volunteers and friends of Obakki, and a team of staff from the Council for International Cooperation (CIC), ICA's Cameroonian partner organization. The condition of the single road in the valley is so poor that it proved more efficient to walk the roughly twenty kilometers on foot. Along the way, we visited several schools that ICA and CIC have constructed, along with some that are currently under construction.

As with most schedules in Cameroon, we fell well behind ours after just our first two stops – simply because our hosts at the first two schools we visited (a Government Technical College, or GTC, and a primary school) insisted on providing us with food and beverage. Le Cameroun c'est le Cameroun!

Three highlights of the day of our trek included:

- Having the children at the primary school perform songs for us;

- Crossing a narrow, rickety bridge made of vines;

- Arriving in Bechati with enough daylight remaining to squeeze in a bath in the river.

On Wednesday in Bechati, while visiting the site of a future water catchment that will provide water for the village, we noticed a baby girl, named Volontry, whose hand was badly burned. After she'd burned her hand in boiling water, the girl's parents', having no other alternative, took her to a local healer, who coated the wound with honey and bandaged her third-degree burns in animal skin. When we arrived, her burn was a week old, and she was clearly in serious pain and at risk of infection – an infection could easily prove deadly.

We arranged to have the girl sent to the health clinic in far-away Menji-Fontem. The journey itself, by motorcycle, cost 17.000 f CFA – a sum of cash that Volontry's parents never could have afforded. After Captain Smith of ICA wrote to the missionary doctors at the hospital and guaranteed that he would cover the cost of the girls' treatment, we sent the baby and her mother off with the note in hand, as well as some cash to cover food expenses during the days they would spend away.

That day, we traveled halfway back to Lewoh, riding this time in the back of the Helix, clinging to its roll bars, arguably a slower and more painful mode of transport than just walking. After another river bath, we sat out beneath the stars, listened to music, drank Canadian whiskey and Cameroonian beer, and discussed the problem at hand: Though we can build schools, how to we find a SUSTAINABLE solution to guaranteeing that families can afford to enroll their children in school? That question remains unsolved... but we've come closer to a potential solution. More to come on that soon.

With the tiny house full of sleeping bodies, I opted to sleep on the front terrace under an amazing blanket of stars. It was a peaceful night's sleep – despite the family of baby goats and the occasionally crowing rooster.

On Thursday, we spent most of the day in the back of the Helix as it thrashed its way up the rutted valley road. Probably the most typical Cameroonian-circumstance we encountered was a group of men working on installing electric lines, who, in doing their work, had felled three trees over the road and moved on without removing them. Without losing too much time, we managed to have them saw the trees out of the way – and almost lost one over the edge of the cliff when Ryan under-estimated his own strength. :)

Once back in Lewoh, a small group of us continued on to Menji-Fontem to visit a water project and check up on the status of Volontry. She and her mother, Agatha, were in a back room in the hospital ward, and Agatha simply beamed at the site of us. Volontry look immeasurably better – the glazed-over pain and sadness gone from her eyes. She'd received injections of antibiotics and had her wound properly cleaned, and was looking like she'd made weeks' of progress in healing rather than just two days' worth. What Volontry couldn't express in words her mother expressed in relief and happiness. We said our goodbyes to the mother and daughter at the hospital, celebrated their success with a beer in the town market, and then climbed back into the bed of the Helix with lighter hearts to return to Lewoh.

I returned to Dschang yesterday morning in time to make a noon meeting in Doumbouo – but before departing Lewoh took part in an early morning meeting in which Treana, Ryan, Ed, Leke Tambo of CIC, and I laid out the beginnings of plans for Breaking Ground to bring an agricultural enterprise development program to the Valley. We still have lots of work to do concerning that program, but one thing is sure: the partnership between Breaking Ground, Obakki, ICA, and CIC holds great promise.

On est ensemble!

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