Wednesday, 1 December 2010

My guardian angel works overtime

Do you believe in angels?  I do - my life has been blessed with so much good fortune, timely occurrences and luck of the draw.  My guardian angel works overtime.

The big Cameroonian adventure is over.  But what a blessing it was.  I learned so much - about Africa, about Cameroon, about great people and great challenges.  Mostly, I learned about myself - some good things and some not so good.  I like to think I am a better person today than I was eight months ago.

As you know, I had a medical scare.  Julie was visiting in Cameroon and by chance (by guardian angel) I mention a little problem I had been having.  Dr. Julie soon had me going for tests, which turned out just ambiguous enough for SVO UK (they were terrific!) to call me back  for more tests in London.  We caught it early.  There are pre-cancer cells, but in the earliest stages.  It now requires monitoring and if and when these cells develop, treatment will be quick and simple.  Thanks, Guardian Angel.

We spent a month taking refuge with our friends, Ann and Joe Wells in London.  We met Ann and Joe quite by chance (by guardian angel) about a year ago.  We became friends and when we needed them, their door was wide open.  We stayed with them a whole month - giving new meaning to the phrase 'overstaying your welcome'.  Yet this wonderful couple was always gracious and welcoming.  Thanks, Guardian Angel.

Dave and I have been in Winnipeg almost a week now.  We are spending time with our son Eric and his partner Claude before we go see Julie and Paul in Toronto, and spend Christmas with Robert and Linnea in Montreal.  One of my biggest regrets about going to Cameroon is that I would not be with my family for Christmas.  It will be a great time to re-connect with family and friends.  Guardian Angel saw to that too!

January will be time to begin a new adventure - what that is we are not sure yet, but I know my guardian angel won't fail me.  We miss Cameroon and all the wonderful people we met there.  We won't forget them soon and maybe some day, we will have the chance to go back to visit (Can you do anything about that, Guardian Angel?)

So this is the last blog about the Cameroonian adventure.  Thank you all for sharing it with us.  Please, stay in touch.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Who would have thought?

Who would have thought that Dave and I would be living and working in sub-Saharan Africa?

Who would have thought that we would be sleeping in a bed of questionable quality, with a pink fleecy blanket with a big picture of Barbie on it?

Who would have thought that in such a hot country, the water could feel soooo cold?

Who would have thought that I, the night owl, was going to bed as early as 8:30 and getting up at 6? 

Who would have thought that mud could be a slippery as ice?

Who would have thought that you could hold a conference for over 300 people with no toilet facilities?

Who would have thought that you can do off road without going off the road?
Who would have thought that there still existed trains where the toilet, with it shiny stainless steel seat, reveals a hole straight through to the tracks when flushed?

Who would have thought that at 58, Dave would be learning to ride a motor bike?

Who would have thought that putting a flashlight/torch on the end of a cell/mobile phone would be such a great idea?

Who would have thought that after only 7 months, our stay would be cut short….

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Julie's Visit

I am very sad to say that Julie's visit is almost over – but I am so grateful that she was able to come and spend this very special time with us.
We returned to Bamenda with Julie on Wednesday night, just in time for our usual Wednesday night fish at Bob's where Julie was able to meet some of our friends who all knew how anxiously we had awaited this visit. The next morning, Julie was off and running to check out her volunteer placement, the Cameroon Baptist Conference Health Board, so that the following day, she was already off to Mbingo Hospital with our colleague. She has been volunteering there ever since.
We have had a great time with Julie, interspersed with dinners out with other VSO volunteers and colleagues, visits to our workplaces etc. We have kept busy.
The highlight of the visit was surely the visit to Kumbo some 100 km or 3 – 5 hours away, depending on the condition of the roads. I won't bore you with yet another description of what is no more than a series of muddy pot holes and ruts. We arrived at our colleague's Catherine, a palliative care doctor volunteering in Kumbo.  Cat lives in a nice house way up on a hill with beautiful views.  Check out the poinsettias in her neighbour's yard .
We had a nice lunch – cassava chips and tomato sauce. Then Julie and Catherine set off for the hospital where Julie was introduced and invited to help. That evening, Catherine had a few friends over and we enjoyed some home made pizza that she made with cheese that we had brought.
Saturday morning, we were up very early as it was Palliative Car Day and there was a special mention at Chapel at 7 in the morning. Chapel happens 3 times each week. Several hospital staff come for prayers and announcements. Catherine made a nice short speech explaining palliative care and others on her team described the difference they were making in people’s lives. At the end, Cat introduced Julie who said a few words.
After Chapel we went to the canteen for some good omelettes. Julie then headed to the paediatrics ward to help Mona, a German volunteer paediatrician. Cat took Dave and I on a tour of the hospital. That sure brought home how lucky we are. Walking through the wards where the beds are not the fancy adjustable beds we have in hospitals at home but steel frame straight cots, the sheets and blankets are thin and sparse and the doctors manage with limited resources makes you grateful with what you have access to.

After that we went off to Cat's, to meet up with more friends for food and good times. The evening found us at a local pub for beer (of course) and chicken and joined other expats for discussions and story telling. The real adventure started when it was time to get home. Being the rainy season, it poured and being after 7:30, there were no cabs available. In this rain, there was no question of walking home, so we hailed two motorcycles. So here we are, Julie and Cat on a bike with no headlights and Dave and I on another going up this hill, getting to the muddy ruddy part and getting soaked. My sweater is still wet! Having no choice, we broke every VSO rule riding after dark on a bike with no helmets. And this was my first time ever on a motorcycle!
Sunday started off with a lovely brunch with friends. Cat prepared yam cakes and Dave stepped up to the plate by making some delicious pancakes with honey. We started our trip home at 11:30 and made good time, covering the 100 kms in about 3.5 hours.
We are back in Bamenda. Julie is finalizing some presentations she is giving this week and finishing off her volunteering. Sunday, we are back on the bus to take her to Yaounde. Time does go by too quickly some times.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Are we there yet?

The alarm goes off at 6:30 am.  Dave gets up, dresses and is out the door.  He is going to the bus station to pick up tickets to Yaounde – we are going to pick up Julie and we are excited.

I get up, pack a few things.  I never drink or eat before travelling – 7 hours with only one toilet stop is a long time.  Dave returns,  announcing that the bus is leaving at 8, not 9:30 as usual.  So we grab our things go.  Indeed the bus is there waiting when we arrive.  I make my usual last trip to the toilet (read stinky hole in the ground) and board.  The bus if filling up – that is good;  it won`t leave till all seats are sold and passengers on board.  We wait... and wait....  We finally are on our way a 9:30!  Oh well this is Africa.

As we take off, one guy says “Are we there yet?”  I groan.  The entertainment begins.  You see, on every trip, we get a short haul passenger who is either a preacher or a salesman.  This one starts off as a preacher, saying a prayer and asking God for a safe jouney.  Then he goes on to selling some miracle drug or something, in pidgin English. He must have been funny since the whole bus is laughing a lot.  I try to ignore him and read my book.  Soon, I fall asleep – unusual on this bumpy road.  Luckily we are sitting at the front where the bumps are less hurtful to our soft western derrieres.

I snooze off and on, noticing that we are moving along quite well.  We reach Bafoussam with its horrid, pot holed, muddy and unconfortable road.  (It has been this way since we arrived so I have given up saying it is under repair!)  We have lost our salesman on the way.  About an hour later, we arrive at our one stop.  We all pile out and head for the facilities.  100 Francs to get in but they give you toilet paper and the place is relatively clean.  Never mind that the taps don`t work and you have to wash your hand out of buckets outside.  After, we buy oranges and bananas at the adjoining market.  I risk a few gulps of water.

We are making good time and by about 4, we are on the outskirts of Yaounde – we should arrive within the hour.  Not surprisingly, part of the 4 lane road is under repair; all traffic must make do with two lanes.  Well not quite.  There is one line of vehicles coming out of  Yaounde but there are at least two going the other way, with cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes and pedestrians squeezing into any little space they think they can.  Then,  “CRUNCH!”  Some taxi tried to get on the road from the left, cuts it short and the driver, which could not possibly have seen him, gets him in the back door, driver`s side.  The driver, the assistant and several passengers go outside to take part in the ensuing quarrel.  We wait. 

It is quite fascinating to watch the traffc while this is going on. While Africans take a relaxed approach to time, this does not apply to drivers which are aggessive and risk takers.  Our half of the road is about 2.5 higher than the half that has been closed down.  The stream of traffic headed toward us is constant,  slowing to a crawl.  We are blocking a good portion of the road but the vehicles behind us are not waiting;  they are going around the bus – both sides!  Finally a few on coming cars decide to roll down the slope to the closed part of the road – not a bad idea since nothing is going on there.  The real fun starts when the cars following us also decide to use the closed section further back, rejoining the road just in front of our accident.  One car races up, wheels spin, can`t make it up the 2.5 feet of mud.  Try again – almost makes it on two tires.  Backs up, takes a running start – and here he comes...  You realize that he has to cross in front of the oncoming traffic and no one is stopping it!  Luckily some vigilant driver sees what is happening and stops his car while the other one screams up the slope, crosses the road and squeals in front of the bus.  How it was managed without any collision will always be a mystery to me.

It has been about 45 minutes when someone convinces the taxi driver that he was at fault and there is no way the bus company will pay for the damage.  Another guy moves to the back of the taxi, picks it up by the bumper and movers it clear of the bus.  Finally we are on the road, while the poor taxi driver has pulled over and is trying to punch out his read door so that it will close. 

We are moving, sliding into the middle lane.  Then “CRUNCH!”  Yep, the same thing all over again.  We have not been going 3 minutes!  This time it is a private car – and the police arrive to help.  Still another 30 minutes lost.  No one is asking “Are we there yet” as it would surely jinks us.

When we are off again, the bus turns down a side road to loud protest from the passengers.  Many want to continue down the main road to be dropped off along the way.  We turn around, go back up the hill, drive 20 feet and stop for about 20 minutes while about half the passengers get off and their luggage is unloaded. Will we ever get there?

Another 20 minutes and we arrive at the main bus station (not where we expected to end up).   It is now  7 pm. And we have been travelling for almost 12 hours! We are so relieved that we even forget about our bladders.  All we want do to is get a cab which takes us straight to the pizza place, starved and not really believing that yes, we are there.....

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

A Bemenda Wedding

It is the first Saturday in September.  Being non-African, we arrived at the church on time – 11:00 sharp.  It is a beautiful Presbyterian Church which can hold several hundred people.  But at this point, it is virtually empty – not a dozen people if you don’t count the choir which is warming up.

Slowly people start arriving.  The civil ceremony, which was held prior at city council was delayed.  We spot a few people from Dave's work - it is their colleague who is being married today.  At about 12:45, it begins with th slowest bridal entrance ever.  First 6 ushers take their posts along the aisle to form
a guard of honour for the bride.  The bridal party starts with 4 little boys all dressed in dark suits and 4 little girls, all in white.  They are followed by 4 bridesmaids and 4 groomsmen.  After them come the tiniest ring
come the tiniest ring bearer and flower girl, he is a light gold suit to match the groom's (who is waiting at the front), she in a dress of the same style and ivory colour as the bride's.  The bride and her parents close the procession, pacing slowly.  She is wearing a great smile.

The service was very near the Catholic ones I am used to.  There were a few differences.  The bride was ushered to sit with her parents.  Once the service began, the pastor asked “Who gives this woman today?”  At that cue, her father rises to say he did and walks to bride to sit beside her husband to be, with matron of honour and best man behind them.  The pastor asks if anyone knows of any reason the wedding should not happen; the groom and bride make a similar declaration.  The bride and groom themselves walked up to the dais and read the readings themselves.  The service continues with a 45 minute homily and lots of singing of hymns and chanting to the beat of African drums.  Vows are exchanged with great applause.  Three hours later, we say the final Amen and the new couple marches out slowly. 

Many pictures are taken on the steps of the church, including one with the NOWEFOR team, which then quickly repaired to the nearest pub for a pre-reception drink.

The hall was nice – but too small for the number of people.  With small windows, it was not long before the temperature rose.  Snacks and drinks were waiting on the tables for us.  The festivities began with the new couple entering to some music and sitting on two large decorated wicker chairs under a canopy.  Speeches are given before the couple stands at the front while dancing, swaying people come to present gifts:  first the bride’s family, then the groom’s, then the colleagues, then the friends.  Man, were we getting hungry! 

And we were not disappointed.  The food was plenty and tasty.  A mixed salad, two rice dishes, baked beans, spaghetti, fish, chicken, watermelon….

It was not long after dinner that the Chair of NOWEFOR decided to leave – so we followed.  I know there was to be a dancing evening after but we figured we came early, we’ll leave early.  We still gained a few more insights into African tradition.  

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Working children

Last Thursday, when it was very quiet, I went to get something from the shelf at the other end of the meeting room.  As I walked along, a movement behind the pillar caught my eye.  I found a little boy; I would guess six years old, looking very upset.  I asked if I could help.  With tears in his eyes, he told me his story but his voice was so soft, all I could make out was “plantains”.  By this time, my one other colleague in the office is coming forward.  He bends down to ask the little boy to repeat his story.  He had been here a little earlier, he said, selling plantains.  A woman agreed to buy some and sent him to get a bag for them.  When he returned, he only found our large empty space, no woman, no plantains, no money.  You could see, with his little eyes brimming with tears that he was on the verge of panic.  What he lost may very well have represented his family’s evening meal, or a substantial part of it.  How was he going to explain the loss?  He said the woman had been on the balcony, so we took him there to show there was no one.  Then it occurred to us that he was on the wrong floor.  My colleague took him upstairs and sure enough, the woman was found and the plantains were recovered.  My heart went out to that little tyke and I was so relieved that we solved the mystery for him. 

The bottom line is that no child that age should have to walk up and down busy streets, among people, cars, motorbikes, moving carts, with a load on their heads, selling whatever they can get their hands on, just so their family can survive  Yet thousands do.  Many walk around with old scales offering to weigh you for 25 francs or carrying popcorn or coconut or bananas, whatever.  As we in the west spent small fortunes on good quality food and fine wines, families here sometimes survive one or two meals a day, usually rice with oily tomato stew, maybe plantains or yams.  Most families here can only afford to have meat once or twice a week, and even then, the quality is very poor. 

Walking home from dinner last night, Dave and I were walking along Nkwen road where there are many stalls where street vendors sell food.  It was already dark out.  We noticed one stall which was run by two little boys, selling roasted fish.  They appeared to be around 5 and 7. 

I don’t want to have to see this anymore…. But I don’t want to become so accustomed to it that I don’t see it anymore.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

A very full weekend

Catholic Mission, Ndop
We intended to travel to Ndop (1 hour out of Bamenda) on Friday morning, for a day long VSO volunteer meeting.  However, a call from one of the organisers on Thursday informed us that a paid up bed was available at the Catholic mission if we wanted to come early.  We arrived in Ndop in time for a delicious evening meal.

Missions such as this, run by religious groups are the best place to stay when travelling around Cameroon.  They are not luxurious, but always clean, with working toilets, good food and hot water.  After the meal, we gathered at our cottage – 5 rooms arranged around a common room.  We sat and chatted.  I headed for the sac about 9 but the hardy ones continued several hours.  It is hard to explain how valuable this time with fellow volunteers is – a wonderful opportunity to share experiences and frustrations.  It makes you realize that you are not the only one having doubts. 
Kareen, Heather, Amelita, Rob

 The next day’s sessions went well.  A lot of good work was done,with some recommendations about volunteer support going back to VSO Cameroon and a better understanding of financial management in NGOs and councils. 

Friday night, we headed off to Jakiri with a volunteer Shamsul to visit his house.  This is another 1 – 3 hours further, depending on the condition of the roads.  Another colleague, Pat, who lives another hour or so beyond in Kumba came along.  We bought extra seats in the taxi (otherwise you have to wait for the driver to fill his car with six others – they want 8 in a car).  I said the roads in Cameroon were bad – in this case there was barely a road at all – just muddy rut after muddy rut.  Potholes that could swallow a VW Beetle are hardly and exaggeration.  And the road was dry – imagine after a heavy rain!  We bumped our way up the mountain to Jakiri.  Wide vistas, revealing ribbons of falls down the cliff, greeted us at every corner – spectacular!
Shamsul is muslim – currently fasting for Ramadan.  But as soon as the sun set, we were presented with fresh dates, bananas and nuts.  This was followed by an excellent beef curry, mixed vegetables and plain rice.  Do I need to tell you we overate!  After the meal, we watched a Bollywood movie with occasional English subtitles.  We did manage to follow the plot – which was very funny!  Then to bed, which was the most comfortable bed we have slept in for months!

After a lazy Saturday morning for me, an early departure for Pat (to beat the rain) and a walk to the summit for Dave and Shamsul, we hired a taxi back to Bamenda, which we reached in record time – 2 hours – just missing the rain.
The road down from Shamsul's

In Bamenda, Dave gets a text from Simon, inviting us to beautiful Belo to celebrate his birthday.  So, Sunday, off we go for another ride in the mountains, about an hour away to enjoy some relaxation time with other volunteers before heading back again. 

Thank goodness today, Monday, is a national holiday, giving us the opportunity to sleep in and rest after a very full weekend.