Friday, February 17, 2012

Cameroon 2012: Fons & Fondoms, Edible Sticks & Goat Poop Snacks

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

Feb 17, 2012:  Into The Valley -- Destination, Njilap.

Even though I had stayed up past midnight journaling, I slept well, even while Kristen and Wendy were packing up for the next day's hike.  I had packed the night before, so I knew I could afford a little more rest.  It would be yet another day of trekking, so the great sleep was appreciated.  

From this point on, we'd be in the valley, with no access to running water or any other luxuries.  Yes, here, running water is a luxury.  We'd also be sleeping on the ground.  I was concerned that any night without proper rest would affect the following day's hike.

We were told to pack whatever we would need for the next 5 days into our big hiking backpacks, and only pack 2 water bottles into our day pack for the day's hike.  Two additional bottles would go into our big hiking bag, which a porter would be assigned to carry.  

I began to wonder if the amount of water we were told to bring was kind of like a difficulty rating for the day's hike.  We would soon find out.

I didn't leave much behind in Lewoh.  My fleece hoodie, that was about it.  I'd have no need for that here... although, much to my delight, God had answered my prayers lavishly once again.  We had been told to expect unbearably hot and humid weather today, which would have made the physical challenge even harder.  That's why I kept praying for rain on the eve of each hike.  It had rained the night before, and His mercies were new this morning once again -- overcast skies, mild weather.  YES!!!  Everyone was baffled... except me.  It was like a secret love letter from God, reminding me of His love.

The plan for the day was to ride the Hilux [sounds like helix] as close as possible to the top crest of the valley, in the opposite direction of our previous hike to Efong.  I think.  Kind of.  

For anyone not familiar with what a Hilux is, it's a truck.  In Cameroon, these trucks are modified by adding a steel "cage" in the back so that people can "ride the back" standing up, while hanging on to this steel cage.  It's the stuff teenage boys and young men dream of.  I also have a very adventurous side, and normally would have jumped all over this opportunity, but my sole focus was on surviving the hikes and carrying out the mission itself...

...And making sure my mom didn't have use my freshly updated last will & testament.  Just sayin'.

Another truck would be hired to take our drinking water to the other end of the valley where we'd hike to a few days later.  All we'd have on us is 36 hours' worth of water, which we'd be carefully rationing.

The drive up the narrow mountain side roads winding along the edge of cliffs was wild enough in the cab.  I can't quite imagine what it would have been like in the back of the Hilux, trying to stand while wobbling around, all while seeing the close calls an the death drops to our right!  Even more fun when large trucks would come from the opposite direction, forcing us to delicately pass by on the narrow mountainside strips of dirt called roads.

Kudos to the team members riding in the back -- their bruises may disappear over time, but the experience won't soon fade from memory!

When we reached as far as the Hilux would go, we got out, unloaded all the hiking bags, and stopped for a quick rest at the local chief's house.

In this region of Cameroon, villages have chiefs.  A chief is called a "Fon".  He's kind of like a king of a kingdom, except he's a Fon of a Fondom.  You can't make this stuff up.  Seriously.

In most places, I would imagine that guests of a king, a chief, of in this case, a Fon, would bring the royal leader a gift or an offering, and I would have thought most royal leaders wouldn't want the intrusion of a visit.  Here, it was the complete opposite. It would have offended the Fon if we hadn't taken the time to stop by, and the Fon always insisted on giving us refreshments.  We were served a soft drink the color of Cream Soda, except it tasted better.  The only problem was that none of us were thirsty, since we had been riding in the truck, rather than hiking.  

The Fon prayed with us before we drank, and his prayer was beautiful and clearly Christian.  I don't know much about him, but he seemed like a very wise and humble leader.  The local headmaster of the school, upon hearing that we were passing through, left his classes in the care of someone else and quickly made his way down to the Fon's "palace" (read:  rudimentary bungalow) to join us.  He also prayed with us, and something about his prayer also made me feel very much at home -- perhaps it was that both he and the Fon spoke my language -- Christianese.  It quenched my thirst more than the soft drink could ever have.  From and through believers flows rivers of living water.

We didn't stay long, we still had much hiking ahead of us before we reached the tiny village of Njilap (unsure of spelling).  

We started out on the top crest of the valley, and began walking along the paths beyond which only skilled mountain motorbikers could drive.  I really don't know how they do that -- it was insanely (and endlessly) steep.

It was yet another serious workout for the quads, knees and calves.  I don't know who would have been more proud of me -- Brandon or Tia...  or maybe even Jillian Michaels.  

One of the local guides had a walking stick that looked like a bamboo pole.   As he walked ahead of me, I kept thinking that it looked as though his walking stick was getting shorter.  It's crazy what these hikes will do to your mind.  Or, is it?  It seemed that I was not only seeing things, but I was hearing things too, like crunching that sounded like a cross between a horse munching on a giant celery stalk and the sound you hear in your head when you bite into a juicy apple.  Man, I felt like I was really losing it.  What exactly was in that Cream Soda?

Well, ironically, the Cream Soda was made with sugar cane...  so was the walking stick that the guide was feasting on.

So, clearly, I wasn't losing my marbles.   Yet.  The stick was getting shorter, and I wasn't imagining the sounds!

I don't remember much about the hike down, as my mind was elsewhere while my body simply focused on each step of the rough descent into the valley.  The last half hour seemed a bit steeper, and a bit more tough.  The entire hike was at a demanding downhill grade on rocks and slippery dirt that was damp from the rain the previous night.  I slipped a few times but didn't fall.  Some of these hills had such hairpin turns that it was hard to slow the pace down and change directions.  Craziness.

The view, once more, was breathtaking.  

The experience and the hike was wild, relentless, and awesome.  I knew one thing for sure...  a visit to the gym would never be the same after this trip.  This was the real thing.  It was hard to believe that I was here, in Cameroon, doing THIS.

We reached the "chairman's house" where we would be staying that night.  The chairman was the local resident in charge of the school construction project.  We could see the school across the valley, and could even hear the sound of the kids singing.  

The school was a short 45 minute hike around the curve of the valley -- this meant that although the path would be treacherous compared to any of the previous hikes, there would be few hills.  

We rested for a few minutes and had lunch, then prepared to head to the school.  The first few minutes of that hike nearly had me keeled over.  My body, stiff and out of breath, revolted at the immediate climb we had to endure to get to the school path.  

Once we were on the path, after a good 5 minutes, my body adjusted and began to cooperate.  It had little choice.  I had heard the school kids practice their singing earlier, and it was drawing me to the school like an invisible magnet.  

We saw beautiful streams and footbridges along the way.  As precarious as some of them seemed, I didn't hesitate -- the more adventure, the merrier!

The school was incredibly isolated.  There were 67 students, all of whom were lined up in rows according to  class (grades).  There was not a single peep from the kids, their discipline even more impressive than what we had seen at Efong.  Well, in hindsight, I don't know that "impressive" would have been the word...  seeing the children like that left me feeling uneasy about how unnatural it seemed to have children so rigid and obedient.  I didn't want to speculate on the methods they used to produce these results.

The existing school was made of mud bricks, and needless to say, mud brick buildings don't hold up well in the long rainy seasons.  

Especially in an area where it rains 6 months out of the year.

The constant need for maintenance on mud brick buildings takes away energy and resources that could be better used elsewhere.  

These people worked hard enough as it was.

Just as we'd seen at the school in Efong, the new school construction here was well  under way.  This would be the first structure to use cement in that community.  The sand for the cement is brought in from small local streams.  The villagers dredge it from the streams by hand and carry it (usually on their heads) in 30lb rice bags, up to the school.  For these people, it's much more than hard work, it's the reality that this school will greatly improve the lives of their children and change the future of this community.  

Only three teachers teach at the Njilap school.  It's not hard to imagine why.  One of the teachers was posted here by the government, but her husband and 3 young children live in Dschang, a city quite far from the valley.  Each weekend, she treks back to Dschang to be with her family.  Each week, she treks back to Njilap, where she spends her time being one of the most dynamic, driven and devoted teachers I've ever met.  She wanted to be a lawyer, but had to drop out of University due to lack of financial resources to continue.  

These teachers teach without resources that most of us, (teachers, parents, students), take for granted.  There are no textbooks in Njilap.  Paper, notebooks, pencils, pens, erasers... rare.  Never mind the teaching aids, the storybooks, or anything else that would enrich the learning journey.  When the teacher tells a parent that their child needs a pencil, those needs often go unmet.  The villagers all live well below the poverty line, the mere 130 francs cost of an HB pencil is prohibitive.  Most, if not all of these primary school students are the first generation of students in their family.  This means that most parents not only can't afford to purchase uniforms or school supplies, they also can't assist with the complexity of the materials the kids are learning  Having never gone to school, some parents don't yet see the importance... but many do, and those are the people investing sweat equity into the new school construction so that their kids will have the hope of a successful and bright future. 

Over and over again, we heard how encouraged they were that we would take the time to help them achieve a brighter future for their communities, and how grateful they were for our assistance, even though they were the ones doing much of the work.  

Anna (above) and Elise (below), distributing donated school supplies.

What a blessing of joy it was to distribute the school supplies we had brought to these kids.  Pencils, erasers, sharpeners, even individual crayons, all brought such smiles to their precious faces.

The tide of poverty is turning in Njilap, where hope rises thicker than the mist hanging above the jungle mountain tops.  

The kids brought out wooden instruments such as drums and hollow logs with sticks, and they put garments with attached hollowed nut/seeds onto their ankles and calves in preparation for their traditional dance.  The music, the voices, so moving.  There is nothing in the world like the voices of African children, carrying a song to our hearts in unison.  I was able to get some video, but I don't quite know how to load it onto this blog post.  

In the meantime, I'll see if I can upload one to Facebook.

(Don't hold your breath!)

Wait... it might have worked.  Miracles never cease when it comes to all things Africa related, eh?

See the following link!  

The school construction was the most advanced we'd seen so far.  By the time ICA returned, it would be completed.  The community was quite proud of their accomplishments, and they had every right to be.  The work was well done, and they weren't finished yet.  A latrine was also being built behind the current school.  It's hard to imagine a school in Canada without toilets, running water or other basics. 

I loved seeing the elderly women from the community gather on benches in the shade of the school to watch the festivities.  

These ladies were so colorfully dressed, and had such wise, regal and yet humble countenances.  It was beautiful to watch them... 

I wish I could have spoken their language -- I'm thinking they had some great stories to tell.  

Some of them seemed like such lil' firecrackers!  

A few of them were holding sweet, precious babies...  ahhhhh!

I couldn't help myself -- I asked if I, too, could hold a baby.  They looked at each other and giggled adorably.  I could have squeezed them, they were so cute!  The babies I held were two months old, but much, much bigger than the 8 month old baby Leah that I had held on the islands of Lake Volta in Ghana while we were negotiating for the release of Richard.  It makes me wonder if Leah had been 8 weeks, rather than 8 months.  Her age could have been a translation misunderstanding...

Although I had tried to keep stretching my legs and stay hydrated while at the school, when it was time to leave, my body revolted once again.  Darren, one of the guys from our team, had a handful of small nuts or seeds that the school kids had given him.  You're supposed to chew them with your molars until the flavor is gone, and then spit them out.  He gave me one to try... it was awesome -- tasted like creamy coconut, and surprisingly, it gave me a bit of a boost.  I hoped to find more of those.... perhaps enough to fill my empty checked in luggage on the way home?  It's hard to look for something that you can't point out in a grocery store and that could grow on a bush, a tree, or who knows what else.  It doesn't help that the description makes it sound like anything ranging from goat poop to coconut flavored hazelnuts.  

I wished Tia would have been there to try one, but more importantly, share in the experiences of Cameroon with me.  Traveling to Ghana and experiencing Africa with her had been such a great experience, it seemed strange not to have her by my side in Cameroon.  I was hit with a wave of homesickness right then, one that caught me off guard.  I had never been homesick on a mission trip before, not ever, not even by the end of our time in Honduras or Ghana.  Why here, why now?

I tried to focus on the butterflies dancing ahead of me along the path, even though I couldn't help but think of how much Jillian and Tia would have loved seeing them.  

When we came to the curve where the old wooden footbridge stretched over a small stream, I saw it out of the corner of my eye.  A big dark blue butterfly with orange "eyes" on its tail.  Oh, to get a good picture of this one for them!  Could I possibly grab my camera in time?  Butterflies, like the ones back home, never seem to stay in one spot very long before they flutter away.  This one seemed to know...

I was able to take a few photos of it before it took flight again, its blue wings a dazzling dance against the greens of the jungle and the rust red African soil.

Back at the chairman's house, we ha supper and watched as locals gathered around to hang out with us.  We were all quite tired, but they seemed to be in a mood to party.  The women from the community brought out their bush nut dance-wear and brought out wood to make a xylophone like they had made at the school ceremony earlier in the day.  

Their dances were great to watch, but I did not join.  I had a toddler in my lap, and I was quite content to stay planted in place, lest I fall flat on my face from exhaustion and give the locals an extra dose of entertainment.  All I wanted was to spend some time with the kids... and there was plenty of opportunity!  There were kids everywhere, all delighted in receiving a healthy dose of welcomed attention!

Our team wanted to present a song to them, so Michael, our Newfoundland musician, stood up on a chair and sang an Irish jig while the rest of the team danced something akin to a square dance... or something.  It was great, and the puzzled look on the locals' faces was well worth the effort.  Priceless.

By about 6pm, I was ready for bed.  Someone had brought in a generator and was pumping the music quite loudly for all to hear.  There was nowhere comfortable to sit and journal a while.  Wendy was also tired.  She and I waited another hour or so, then proceeded to start getting ready for bed.  No small feat in the African wild!  Brushing teeth, going to the bathroom, cleaning up and preparing the bed... it's all an artform of sorts, one made better by having Wendy as a sidekick.  

Knowing that the hike from Njilap to Menji-Fonjumetaw would be very demanding, we wanted a jump start on our rest.  We assumed, from what we'd been told, that the hike would take roughly an hour and a half through the jungle trails -- our third hiking day in a row.  Jillian Michaels would be proud.

As we were preparing for bed, the chairman of the house approached Wendy and offered his guest room to Wendy and I for the night.  This not only meant that we could avoid the party and get to bed earlier, but that we wouldn't have to sleep on the floor.  What a God-send to receive this gift on what would turned out to be the eve of the hardest hike so far.

Wendy and I laid down, grateful, and talked until about 9pm.  By 9:10pm, Wendy was fast asleep.  I followed shortly.  

Out of all the villages and places we'd been to in Cameroon so far, Njilap made an indelible impression on my heart.  Perhaps I will share more about this as I process the trip through journaling.  Pray for the needs of this community...  My heart feels compelled to launch a fundraising initiative to get some crucial basics such as textbooks supplied to the Injilap school.  Not only would it encourage the students, but it would encourage the teachers as well.  Through ICA, all funds would go directly to whatever they are earmarked for.  I know that any donation would have a significant impact that would be carried through generations to come.  

Please pray for this school, for these families, children and teachers...  and stay tuned for ways to help with the school supplies and more.

P.S. -- Lucky for you, I am about as tired now as I was at the end of that day, so I saved myself some time and spared you from the sharing of the latrine photos and stories from the two adventures we experienced that day.  You're welcome!