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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!



Cameroonians are clean people. So clean, in fact, that it's rare for their clothes to show dirt - even on the dustiest of days - unless they are farming, working construction, or doing some other form of work that necessitates getting dirty. Generally, if you see at dusty, dirty person out about in town, it's safe to say their probably mentally ill and/or homeless. Children are scolded for getting themselves dirty - though this is pretty much inevitable.

Needless to say, then, heads turned today when a white lady (me) carrying a strange white disk (a frisbee) took off today with a gaggle of ecstatic children to the nearby football/soccer pitch (grassless, of course), lined the children up by height, divided the group into two teams (Les Tigres v. Les Elephants), and proceeded to engage in a strange game in which children routinely splayed out in the dirt, kicking up a storm of dust, and shrieking with laughter all the while.

After a long hiatus since college, I began playing Ultimate Frisbee again in my hometown of Portland, Maine this past fall. I had a blast playing with PortSports, and will definitely play again this spring. For the time being, however, I'm going to work on molding this group of rag-tag kids into two somewhat-organized frisbee teams. Our biggest obstacle today was understanding the fact that when a team scores, both sides change directions. Second biggest problem was knowing who was one whose team. I'm going to buy some cloth in the market tomorrow to make colored arm/headbands to distinguish teams. We made a LOT of progress in understanding that one can't run with the frisbee, but only after having to stop the game on multiple occasions to re-explain that the person in possession of the frisbee must be planted like a tree.

Probably the most exciting thing about the game today was the fact that, of the four or five kids who really got what was going on, two of them were girls. I had one girl go "long" (on a pretty short field) for me for several spectacular goals.

Needless to say, we were ridiculously filthy when we returned back to the chefferie. So dirty that the old women sitting outside their houses clucked at me in disapproval (but also found the whole situation pretty entertaining). I'll take that as a compliment.


Highlights from a great day

Today was fabulous.

Part I: Unusual Productivity

1) Going to the commissariat (police station) to faire signer (legalize) a letter of invitation and a copy of my passport, and getting the whole thing done in about 30 minutes. Seriously. How did that happen? Then, scanning the document and getting it to upload without any problem. Sweet!

2) Holding a three hour meeting with Théo and Elsa of RIDEV, M. Njoko (SIT host father), and Zangue Paul (our project manager) to discuss all things Breaking Ground and RIDEV. These folks should all be given credit for their impressive attention spans.

3) Taking Marinette from la famille Nana to the hospital to start the process of figuring out why she's sick, and not having to wait for hours.

Part II: Visit to the Menouet River Bridge et la Chefferie Fotetsa

Chef Fotetsa, Lindsay, and Zangue Paul

Neither words nor photos can describe my arrival at the bridge today. During my multiple visits to the site in 2008, the gap between the two sides of the bridge seemed vast. The rickety wooden bridge constructed of fallen trees to allow motos and building materials to cross the river seemed itself to tower above the muddy waters of the Menouet. Today, however, standing on the finished concrete bridge, I peered down at what seemed to be a miniscule wooden plank across the water. While the finished bridge is the product of decades of planning and expert engineering, it seems almost to melt into the terrain. It is, simply, a bridge, one that you might drive over in the US without even noticing. It is only having seen it at its early stages that I can fully appreciate the complexity of its structure.

But in the villages of F4, it represents an enormous victory. The chiefs, villagers, engineers, and masons of the region overcame countless challenges to make the project a reality. In passing over the bridge on the way home to Dschang from Fotetsa, I developed one of those slap-happy grins that sticks around for hours. Felicitations, F4!

Miscellaneous photos from the day:

Zangue, in his element, explaining best practices in corn farming.

Kids of Fotetsa, who I secretly filmed video of while they played a joyful game of tag in the yard. Unfortunately, I can't upload the video without crashing the Internet in all of Dschang!

Sunset over F4


Update from Doumbouo, and Keuleng Kid photos.

Today I made my long awaited return to Doumbouo. The keep the dust off (futile?) while on the back of the moto, I rode with my hood up, dropping it only when we reached the main carrefour that marks one’s arrival in the village. It is this moment, riding up the final hill to school, where I feel a little like a celebrity each time I return to Cameroon. Mamans waved and cheered and shouted my name from their market stalls, and the papas did the same from their stations at the scattering of local bars/boutiques. Needless to say, excitement exploded from the schoolrooms in the form of screeching children when we pulled up in front.

Breaking Ground’s approach of working with motivated communities with pre-establish project goals was modeled after Doumbouo. Our intent is only to finance projects that have already demonstrated measurable progress, thus ensuring their future sustainability. My return to Doumbouo today provided an encouraging reminder of the value in our methods.

In 2006, during our founding, we assisted the Parent Association of the primary school by improving upon the work they’d already begun: we cemented the classroom floors and walls, painted educational murals, and installed a water source and stair case. Across the street at the public high school, we built a public community library from the ground up with donations of books from two NGOs, ICA Canada and the African Library Project.

Today, the community in Doumbouo has not only succeeded in properly maintaining the primary school and public library, but they have gone so far as to continue improving and expanding the structures. The Parent Association funded the cement plastering of the primary school’s exterior, further improving its structural integrity. The high school is part-way through the construction of two restrooms, adjoined to the library. Furthermore, the Parent Association of the high school constructed two brand-new classrooms to accommodate a growing student body.

Library from the front, with new addition on right.

The new addition of bathrooms.

The new classroom building at the high school.

Perhaps most impressive of all were the numbers recording the library’s usage. The library now holds 2082 total volumes. The librarian records the number of students, teachers, and community members who arrive each day to use books from the collection (regardless of whether they check them out to bring home). During the 2007-2008 scholastic year, the library received 7,015 unique visits. In 2008-2009, the number rose to 10,179!

Part of the library's collection.

The Dewey Decimal system explained.

I’ll return to Doumbouo next week for a more extended visit with my primary school colleagues and the Parent Association.

For now, I leave you with some great shots of the kids in Keuleng.

Can we please pause to appreciate Samira’s t-shirt?

A pause from playing Frisbee to take advantage of the good light.


Homecoming to Dschang, red dust and all.

After nearly two full days of travel, I arrived in my "hometown" of Dschang yesterday in a cloud of red dust. After a long and cramped bus ride from Douala to Dschang, it was nearly dusk when my moto taxi sped across the abandoned and now-overgrown airstrip that leads to Keuleng. Along the way, I passed an elated Paul Sonkeng, a beloved friend of School for International Training students who've passed through Dschang, and father to a 2-year-old boy, Ange, who will start school at Keuleng's new preschool next September. Upon arriving amidst the construction site, I was greeted by an equally ecstatic chief, proud to show me the progress made thus far.

The dry season has arrived in full force, and though the pervasive dust is a nuisance to anyone wishing to keep their clothes (and lungs) clean, the dry weather is a boon to the construction crew at Keuleng. Since construction began just under two weeks ago, hundreds of cinder blocks have been molded and dried, and the walls are steadily growing in height.

At noon today, I met with Paul Zangue, our project manager, Tadjete Calixte, the head technician of the project, the Chief of Keuleng, and both the President and Vice President of the community Development Committee. Because construction was started so early in the dry season, the price of materials remains at the lower rainy season prices. The team expressed relief that we would succeed in buying all the necessary construction materials before the peak of dry season, which is when the majority of construction takes place in Cameroon, thus causing the cost of building materials to rise.

That said, Monsieur Calixte expects to finish raising the building's cinder block walls by December 23rd, allowing his work crew to take vacation the week between Christmas and New Year's. He expects to begin erecting the framing for the roof just after the 1st of January - once everyone has recovered from all their celebrating. (New Years is arguably Cameroon's second biggest "fête" (holiday/party), following closely behind the La Fête Nationale on May 20th.)

In other news, I had a joyous reunion with la famille Nana today, my old host family. The two oldest daughters are both in the northern city of Maroua, pursuing work as a teacher (Clemence) and in information technology (Rosine). Rosine's daughters, Lindsay (3) and HŽlne (16 months), are home with Maman, who has admittedly lost some weight (much to her dismay, I'm sure) in chasing the two kids around. It's believed that children take on the personality of their namesake, thus I am routinely blamed for the fact that the child named after me is such a handful. I think I owe both Madame Nana and my own mother an apology for being such a pain in the !@%. I'm not sure how comforted Maman was when I told her what my own mom's dear friend told her 20+ years ago - that Lindsay's temperament would serve her well in the future. As I said that, however, Lindsay, freshly bathed and in clean clothes, was tearing around the dusty-filled garden, ripping leaves off of perfectly healthy banana trees, and feeding those leaves to the hungry and sharp-toothed hogs caged in the yard. When told to stop, she cackled and darted between trees. It probably didn't help that I laughed.

Meanwhile, Delmas (9) is doing well at Rainbow School. I brought him two books from home - Blueberries for Sal and Where the Wild Things Are - which we read together while I quizzed him on English words (he's good!) and Lindsay tried in vain to wrench the new books from our grip.

(Favorite comment of the day from Lindsay, while pointing at the bird-like claw of one of the Wild Things, was "It's like a snake's foot," to which we replied, "Snakes don't have feet." Deep, concentrated, silent, and frustrated thought ensued.)

Martial (13) is enrolled in a technical high school to learn construction work, which I think will suit him well. Valerie (21), for lack of school fees, has begun the process of enlisting in the military, but we talked today about trying to get him back to school first to finish his degree in carpentry. Marinette (19) is in her second-to-last year in high school, but has been out sick a lot. Unsurprisingly, Papa has neglected to provide a single franc to send her to the doctor, so she and I are going together at the beginning of next week when she'd done with her midterm exams.

Regarding Marinette: Thanks to a very thoughtful gift from a Breaking Ground donor, I am reading a new copy of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky. Kristof and WuDunn highlight a widespread global health crisis: the fact that families around the world seem to prioritize the health of their sons and neglect or hesitate to provide their daughters with crucial medical care. Maman reports that Marinette has been sick for more than a year now, but that when Papa learned that she'd have to receive some non-routine testing, he refused to pay. Kristof and WuDunn describe this sort of discrimination in detail:

The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine "genercide" in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century. (xvii)

True, Marinette does not seem near death, but she is sick enough to be missing out on crucial years of her education. And that, too, is a crime.

That said, regarding health, I just had a heartening meeting with two teenagers from Keuleng who are the organizers of a local HIV/AIDS youth group. They've received formal training as ambassadors of sorts, and they train and organize teams of youth to speak in schools and at community meetings regarding both protection against HIV/AIDS, and community acceptance of individuals who test positive.

Tomorrow, I head to Doumbouo to see my old colleagues (and amazing friends) from l'ƒcole Publique. Just as I couldn't have been happier when yesterday's overloaded bus from Douala began the strenuous assent into the hills of Dschang, I can't wait to climb on the back of a moto tomorrow to sputter up dusty hills of Doumbouo. I'll be there just in time for school recess.