Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cameroon 2012: Heat, Hills, Hike, and Hello Kitty

{Preface:  I traveled to Cameroon, on the coast of West Africa, in February of 2012.  Our mission was to check the progress on the constructions of schools and water projects in a very remote valley of Cameroon.  These recollections are pieced together from the journal I filled while in Cameroon.}

(Feb 15, 2012 – On the eve of our hike from Lewoh to Efong)

I haven’t often prayed for rain. 

Oh, I’ve prayed for rain to fall upon distant lands – Kenya, where our Compassion son Noah lives, and the surrounding areas on the northeastern horn of Africa where droughts led to one of the worst famines in recent and not so recent) history.  Back home, however, I pray for sun, warmth, and blue skies to replace the fog, rain, and the glum gray enshrouding our city with cool temps.  This makes God giggle, apparently.  

I hoped He would humor me in Africa.

Our travels had led us to Lewoh, Cameroon, in the middle of February to follow up on some humanitarian projects under way in “The Valley”.  The organization we were traveling with, International Children’s Awareness (ICA) had several school constructions taking place, as well as several water projects. 

Lewoh is remote in and of itself, but not as remote as the valley, where we’d be headed the following day.  

While the valley mostly consisted of impassible roads and jungle trails, no running water or electricity, Lewoh was blessed with dirt roads, some running water, and mostly reliable electricity.  It also had plenty of heat and sun this time of the year.  To make things worse, we had been told that the rainy season had come to an end, and that we shouldn’t expect much rain.  “Sunny, hot and humid” was on the weather menu for the next two weeks, along with the rice and the ever-so-plentiful plantain.  That wasn’t all...  the locals warned us that “in the valley, it’s much, much hotter.  Too hot.”   

When an African tells you the weather is too hot, any foreigner of sound mind and body would normally turn around and run in the opposite direction. 

Instead, we would hike into the hot zone itself... first downhill into the valley to reach the school area, then, back uphill to Lewoh.  That was just on the first day. 

Welcome to Cameroon, enjoy your initiation. 

As I laid down and waited for sleep to find me, I prayed for our hike the following day.  I prayed for my body to be up for the challenge, for my mind to be stronger than my body, for mercy, and for rain...  rain would lower the temperatures and bring relief from the heat for our hikes.  Since I sleep very soundly, I wouldn't hear the rain or know until morning if God answered my prayers, but He had, and then some.

When I walked into the living area the following morning for our 8am breakfast call, I saw that it was overcast, and the air felt cool.  YES!  It had been milder than usual during all our time in Cameroon leading to this point, but it needed to continue.  And so far, it looked as though it would at least for today.

We were told to pack 3 large water bottles for today’s hike.  Water is crucial when hiking in the heat, even on a milder day.  Water also adds weight to our load, a disadvantage that could be very costly.  One also has to seriously consider whether or not to also lug a DSLR and some heavy lenses. 

Last night, one of the local guides I had spoken to sized me up (probably wondering what in the world I was doing there with this group of young, fit and experienced people) and told me that “for a Canadian like me”, he estimated it would take twice the time as the more experienced crew, and much, much more time than a local.  In other words, expect a brutal fitness challenge.  It wasn’t just the heat, it was the terrain.  No matter where we were going, it was either all uphill or downhill.  No relief. 

I knew it would be tough.  In fact, I had known it for months, and I wasn’t alone in that knowledge.  My best friend, Tia, also my personal trainer, had looked through the information that our team leader, Captain Smith, had sent to us months ago, and her exact words were “You are so going to die.

Back in the Brussels Airport, Captain Smith had given us a briefing while we waited for our flight.  “When hiking into the valley, always ensure you have a Cameroonian guide ahead of you to watch for snakes.  Just to be clear, ALL snakes in Cameroon are poisonous.  If you see a snake, don’t run in the opposite direction, alert the guide, and follow the snake so that we know where it’s at until the issue is dealt with.”

I don't know what struck me the most -- the fact that every snake in Cameroon is poisonous, or that someone would think we'd have energy left to outrun one.

As I’m eating breakfast, I’m debating whether or not to use the small but compact backpack (school bag) that would have been much less comfortable on my shoulders/back, or the large Columbia hiking backpack with a waist belt, chest straps, and all the support possible to distribute the weight well.

I wisely chose the hiking backpack, and stuffed some homemade beef jerky in one of the pockets.  The salt and protein would likely come in handy at some point. 

I also included a small child’s pink Hello Kitty backpack/purse that my daughter had given me before I left for Cameroon.  It was a backpack she once used to put all her “hair pretties” in to take to ballet classes when she was little.  She wanted me to find a very special girl in Africa to give this to.  She said it brought back great memories for her, and that she hoped that it would create great memories for the little girl who would own it next.

As we gathered outside with our backpacks on the front steps of our base camp, I was prepared to do or die – I was going to give it my everything and do this myself and for God.  There would be no fancy *bling* medal, just an invisible badge of honor.

More importantly, there was also the importance of being able to complete the hike on the simple basis that there was no choice – there would be no transportation available to bail anyone. 

Furthermore, I did not want to disappoint or concern the team as we began our work in the valley. 

As we set our backpacks on the ground outside, one of the local guides grabbed my oldest son Brandon’s army gear hiking bag that was full of school supplies and donations for the school we were visiting.  It made me wish Brandon was here too.

David, one of the other local guides, walked over to my big backpack that held my water, and hoisted it effortlessly onto his back.  Surprised, I tried to stop him, telling him that this was not one of the supply bags for the porters, but he had no intentions of listening to me.

Part of me wondered if he was concerned and very protective of me, or if the leaders had previously discussed this and planned it.  Either way, I saw this as the unexpected blessing and answer to prayer that it was, and I was humbled.  I hoped that the rest of the team would not see this as an unfair advantage, but instead as an extra measure to ensure that I wouldn’t hold the team back. 

It was estimated that we’d be hiking downhill for roughly two hours into the valley toward Efong, where the school construction project was underway.  We’d stay in Efong at the school for two hours to assess the development, distribute supplies and spend time with the kids and teachers.  Once we left Efong, we’d be facing the gruelling 2 hour hike back up the steep mountainside to get back to Lewoh. 

They weren’t kidding about the massive hills.  Jokes of our parents walking uphill both ways in the snow up to their waists to get to school each day ran rampant.  We started going uphill to the crest of the valley, and then started a deep descent.  I don’t think any treadmill I’ve ever been on had an incline quite this insane. 

If I ever thought going downhill would somehow be easier, gravity and all helping us – my quads quickly reminded me otherwise. 

What surprised me was my mental strength and stamina.  As hard as it was (and it was!), going all uphill to the crest of the mountain top, and then steeply down into the valley, I never felt discouraged, overwhelmed or remotely close to giving up.  I felt confident and although I was at the back of the pack for most of it, it never felt as though I was unreasonably holding the team back. 

Whether this was because our team’s pace averaged out well or they gave grace to those who took a less demanding pace, it’s hard to say, but I think the fact that we arrived in Efong within the estimated time counted for much. 

Maybe I had simply improved.

As we reached the school, we saw all the children wearing blue uniforms except a very few toddlers who were hanging around, possibly the teachers’ kids.  Every day in Africa is “bring your kids to work day”!

I looked up the hill at some point and saw a girl, maybe 8 years old, sitting by herself up on the hill above the school, away from all the children.  She seemed to be the definition of the child “on the outside looking in”.  She was not wearing a uniform, and wasn’t taking part in the kids’ games outside the school.  My heart went out to her.  In ways, she reminded me of Jillian when she was younger -- in her own little world, perched on the outside looking in.  Such is life all too often on the autism spectrum.  As I approached, I pointed her out to Kristen, one of our experienced team members who specializes in education.  Kristen had seen her, and thought it was possible that she wasn’t a part of the school program because of some disabilities or challenges.  The girl had not let Kristen come close. 

I kept my eye on her as I started climbing up the hill where she was sitting and noticed her shirt just as she stood up and bolted from me.  

Her shirt?  Hello Kitty.

I sat down on the rock where she had been sitting moments before, and turned back to smile at her but couldn’t see her from my vantage point on the hill.  She was higher up, beyond the little ridge behind me.  I felt the Holy Spirit nudge me to extend my arm out toward the tree to my left.  I kept smiling, at no one in particular, until she appeared.  I didn’t move my arm, keeping it still and extended, waiting for her to come to me, certain that had anyone been watching, I would have looked pretty much ridiculous...  It was like trying to catch a rare butterfly by standing on your head and reciting the alphabet backwards...  but patience would be rewarded.

She quietly came to the rock where I sat, and stood beside me. I could hardly believe it.

I pointed to her shirt, and even though I didn’t know if she’d understand, I gently told her that it was a Hello Kitty shirt, and that it was very pretty.  I told her that my daughter had a little Hello Kitty backpack too.  Still smiling (smiling comes easy in Africa!), I showed her the backpack and explained that my little girl told me to find a very special little girl to give this backpack to...

And that she was this little girl.

I tenderly put it on her back, helping her put her thin arms through the straps.  She smiled as she tried to look backward at her back to see her new prized possession.  I knew Jillian would be pleased. 

A beautiful transformation took place.  This timid, quiet little girl then walked with me down the hill to the school where all the students crowded around her to admire her new backpack. 

From the look of confidence on her face, I’d say this was a pretty special occasion for this precious girl.  Her smile was priceless.  She spent the rest of our time there mingling with the other children.

Our team was split up so that there were 1 or two of us in each classroom at the primary school, to accompany the teachers in giving out the school supply donations.  We had pencils for each child, a prized item in this remote area where pencils and notebooks are rare luxuries, as well as extras to hand out as treats:  pencil sharpeners, erasers, notebooks, crayons.  The children had to answer questions in order to earn an extra item.

The kids were extremely well behaved.  Discipline in these schools is much different than it is back home in North America.  Corporal punishment is used – fear and respect go hand in hand here in Cameroon.

I was assigned to the grade 3 class, who proceeded to outsmart me in math.  *sigh*  It doesn’t take much.

The kids got a kick out of the fact that I didn’t know the answer.   So would my kids!

Find AUB={               }???
Set A = {1,3, 6, 8}
Set B = {1, 2, 4, 7}

What I didn't know what that the "U" in the equation stands for "union" and you have to merge both sets and list the numbers from each set in order, only listing each digit once.  Well, then!

I didn't mind the kids poking fun at me -- God knows my weaknesses and uses my strengths!

With my hearing issues, it was SO hard to hear the children's timid voices in the loud classroom, I had to really depend on the teacher to know whether or not their answers were correct.  

I'm so glad we worked hard to collect school supplies for these kids back home before we came to Cameroon.  I knew they would be appreciated, as I had similar experiences in Honduras and Ghana, but this went beyond what we experienced there.  These children were not part of a Compassion program, nor did they live in a Compassion assisted area.  There is no Compassion program in Cameroon.  

I'm so thankful that ICA has reached into this area and helped these beautiful children and their families to lift themselves out of poverty.  

I don't have the words to do justice to the impact that is being made in the valley. 

I think the light in her eyes and the smile on her beautiful face tells the story better than I could! 

Some of the kids had made paper cell phones and cameras, and were delighted in showing them to me.  

I loved looking at their workbooks, and seeing their painstaking efforts poured onto paper. 

Afterward, the kids being too distracted by us “white folks” to keep their focus on their studies, they were let out for the day, and our team sat in the shade with the school officials while the kids played all around us.  It was so much fun watching the children and interacting with them.

Beer was served...  along with soft drinks.  It was a little surreal to drink beer at a primary school mid-day (or at any time, I suppose!), but since I don’t drink alcohol, I passed on the beer.  The soft drinks were tasty.

Unfortunately, all the water we were drinking, and the drinks served, meant that a "nature call" was inevitable.  Waiting until we were back in Lewoh in semi-civilization was not an option.  

Wendy and I, being the oldest two women on the team (and the only ones other than Captain Smith over the age of 35), typically paired up together for all extra-curricular adventures, such as trips to the latrines or, uh, elsewhere.  We'd watch each other's backs and brave the wild together.  As we hiked up the hill past the school, we were thankful this school had a latrine.  Not all schools did.  As we opened the door to the latrine and looked around, suddenly, having our nature call out in nature looked a whole lot more inviting...  there are few words that can accurately describe the conditions (without losing all my readers in the process).  Thankfully, I have no fears, so spiders, creepy crawlies, and unmentionable other issues weren't going to deter me from this experience.  All the more to share with the kids later, right?  

I am pretty sure Wendy took a photo of this latrine.  We took turns documenting them along the way.  I'll spare you (this time) since Wendy has the photo. In the future, though, if I took a photo of it, you'll see it.  Be forewarned!

The school construction was progressing well and looks as though it will add 2 large classrooms to the school.  Some of the current classrooms are used for more than one grade, so the new structure will bring relief to the teachers and the students.  

I don’t know how the teachers manage... they certainly don’t do it for the money.  They all seem to have a tremendous passion for children and education.

All too soon, it was time to start our journey out of the valley.

The hike back was much tougher than the hike to Efong, as much of it was at a steep incline, we were already tired, and it was a bit hotter in the afternoon sun even though it was still somewhat overcast.  It would have been SO much hotter if it hadn’t rained overnight.  I was grateful. 

(Wendy, at the back of the team with the white shirt and khaki shorts.)

I started off well, but halfway up the mountain climb, I started losing steam and speed.  I’d stop for water and rest until my heart rate would stop raging, perhaps no more than a minute to a minute and a half in order not to lose momentum, and then I kept marching on. 

And on.

And on.

And on.

(and on)

At the top of the second to the last hill before the crest of the valley, I started feeling at the end of my strength.  I came alongside Wendy and asked how she was doing.  She was slowing down some too, so we started walking together, slowly making our way up the hill as our conversation distracted us from the exhaustion. 

I felt good again once we reached the top, and the rest of the hike back to Lewoh was a breeze.

Our total hike there took about two hours there, and about two and a half hours back. 
The view on the way back was breathtaking – maybe it was part gorgeous scenery and part uphill climb that took our breath away!!

What a feeling it was to look back down the valley and see how far we had actually hiked, even if we couldn't see much of it in one single view.  That was when I saw the strength God had given me... I had beat some serious odds with God’s strength through me.

Martin, one of our local guides, noticed what God had done as well.  As we approached the base camp in Lewoh, he came up alongside of me and asked how I was feeling, and how my day was.  I told him I was feeling good and was pleased with how our day went.  He put him hand on my arm and looking at me straight in the eyes, he told me that he had been concerned about me that morning, but had been surprised by how strong I had been and how well I had exceeded his expectations.  He said he didn’t think I would have been able to endure the hike or keep up with the team, but that he was so proud of me... that we had all finished within the anticipated time. 

That conversation would carry me through the next week of hikes.  

That little hike to Efong was nothing compared to what was in store for us in the following days.