Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cameroon 2012: Cinderella In The Midst Of Cholera

Feb 21, 2012 -- Bechati, Cameroon

(See Blue Point)

Morning found me feeling better.  Weak and unable to hold breakfast down, but better.  Later today, the Hilux would pick us up in the village, and we would ride our way back to Lewoh.  After the previous day's hike, it was nice to have a less physically demanding day.

We made our way from the guest house to the center of the village where we would meet with the local Fon and representatives from adjoining villages.  There had been some major issues with the water project here.  The original proposal had been to provide clean water to Bechati village, but when it was realized how close they were to the two adjoining villages, Folepi and Banti, and how all three areas were in desperate need of clean water, engineers were hired to study and consider the feasibility of providing water to the 3 communities from that one water project.

The engineering report was now in the hands of ICA and Captain Smith, and Captain Smith assured the Fon an the representatives that there would be renewed life to this water project, that it would continue and that ICA knew that clean water was the lifeblood of this community.

Time was a delicate balance here...  as is everywhere in communities mired in extreme poverty.

Not enough time to study the possibility of bringing water to three villages meant that two villages went without clean water...

Time taken to study the possibility meant that the death toll would continue to rise.

There have been many deaths in this community from completely preventable diseases such as cholera, and the prevention is something we all too often take for granted -- access to clean water.  It's something I'm passionate about and consider to be one of the most effective ways to turn the tide against extreme poverty.  Access to clean water drastically changes a community.  Fetching water is a task often placed upon the backs of vulnerable women and children, who have to walk miles daily to the nearest water sources in order to provide water to their families.  Predators also wait by water sources, knowing that these vulnerable women and children will come along, unprotected.

Unless a well has been dug or an alternate water source has been provided, the water source is often nothing more than a questionable swamp, where animals also converge in their parallel quest for survival.  The water is often infested with parasites and animal feces, as well as bacteria that the human body can simply not handle.  Places without access to clean water often lack access to health care too.

Without the water, the people can not survive, and with it, most get sick or die.  It's poverty that robs them of access to clean water, and sadly, it's also what keeps them poor -- without access to clean water, all this time spent fetching water means the women and children find themselves unable to attend school or obtain profitable work.  Without education and jobs, the cycle of poverty continues.  It costs money for the medicine to combat the illnesses caused by dirty water, if medicines are available at all...

This perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

These people, in this room, in this village, were living the reality that I speak of in my advocacy.

These people have names, faces, families, children, parents, neighbors...  and above all, VALUE, and these very people are not dying from poverty, they are dying from a lack of compassion on our part.

Yes, us.

You, me, the rest of the so-called developed world.

We have too much, they have too little, and we're not doing enough so that they have enough.  Yes, enough -- that's all everyone needs.  The opposite of poverty is not wealth -- it's simply "enough".

Enough clean water.

Enough food.

Enough shelter.

Enough access to medical care and education.

Enough for one pair of shoes.

The truth hurts.

"Sometimes, I want to ask God why He allows poverty, famine and injustice in the world...  but I'm afraid He would ask me the same thing." -- Anonymous

Where is the church?  The real church?  The one that shares with one another in community, and makes sure no brother or sister falls through the cracks?  The one called to take care of His sheep, to feed them, and love them?  The one not concerned about "mine vs. yours"...

Walking back through the village after this meeting, I couldn't help but see the kids scurrying around with torn, dirtied clothes, extremely swollen bellies, and protruding belly buttons.  Often, their shirts too small to accommodate for their extended bellies.

Malnutrition, disease, and desperation seemed to be the atmosphere in this town.

As I sat across from a seemingly empty home, I noticed a small girl, barely one, toddling down the street dressed in what would seem to us like mere rags.  No underwear or footwear.  She was scrounging for food on her own, no adult in sight.

In the yard of the empty house across the street, she found an empty metal bowl and wandered off purposefully with it.  My eyes were drawn to her, following her steps as she made her way past the next few houses.

Back home, this would have been unthinkable.  A toddler on her own, wandering the streets without supervision, without shoes, picking up filthy things and scrounging for food.

She quickly joined three young children sitting nearby.  As I approached, I quickly learned why.  One of them had a bowl of what might have been cornmeal.  She intentionally reached into the bowl of mush, grabbed a handful, dropped it into the bowl she had found, and had herself a feast.

I noticed that the other children did not get their feathers ruffled by her actions...  there were no "That's mine, she stole from me!!  Mom, make her stop...  get your own food, that's not yours!"

The whining of privileged children can not be heard here.  It has been silenced by desperation, and by nothing getting in the way of their hearts...

I don't have much, neither do you, let's combine resources, share what we can, and scratch out an existence.

Isn't this what community should be?

Wasn't this the role model of the early church?

And a little child shall lead them...

The photo above remains to this day, my favorite photo from our time in Cameroon.  It sums it all up, and brings me back to that village, that morning, when the world seemed to stand still, baited in the breath of these expectant children...  "Now that you've seen, how will you respond?"

I turned around, and there were more like them.  Everywhere we went... children, bellies swollen, either filled with despair and disease, or...  hope?  When hope is all you have, you hold it close.

As I lowered my camera, walked over to the children, and showed them their photo, I couldn't help but notice the girl on the far right.  She was perhaps about 7 years old, had a dress that was torn at the waist, ends dragging low to the ground, threadbare underwear showing through the gaping hole.  As I interacted with the children sitting on the edge of the house, it wasn't her clothes that captured my attention, it was her countenance.

I had seen it before.

Unable to meet my gaze, she stared at the ground, the weight of the world on her frail, bony shoulders.


She reminded me of Richard.

Richard in the day and life of a modern day Cinderella.  Dejected and empty, she had completely lost her spark waiting for the invitation to the ball, waiting for hope.

She also reminded me of Hello Kitty Girl in Efong, as she seemed to also be struggling with possible disabilities.

There was more...  I saw my Jillian in her too, with her autism spectrum and learning disabilities at times overwhelming her with challenges.

Last but not least, of the little girl I went to Kindergarten with, the one with the crusty nose, dirty face, always stricken with sickness, the one with clothes that didn't always smell as good as the ones my own mom washed... she wasn't popular, sometimes didn't fit in, but she had such a lovely heart and such beautiful eyes.  I loved sitting with her on the bus and never forgot her even long after I moved.  I close my eyes and I see her face.

My heart has always hurt for the least of these, the poor, the broken, because I see myself in them.  I am one too.

I went back to where the team was waiting.  A team member and I spoke about her as we watched her, and we expressed our desire to provide her with a dress.  It didn't seem like much, but we did not have any dresses with us and weren't sure if the village had a shop where one could be purchased.  We asked one of the guides, he told us there was a seamstress just up the street.

I tenderly took the little girl's hand in mine, and motioned to her to come with me.  We walked, slowly and carefully, following the others up to the small shop up the street.  I wondered as I walked with her what was going through Cinderella's mind.  Was she afraid?  Confused?

As we approached the shop, I remember being thankful that I could not explain to her where we were going and why.  If they did not have a dress for her or could not help her, she wouldn't be further disappointed.  I wondered how much a dress would cost here?  What if I didn't have enough Cameroonian francs?

Walking into the shop, hand in hand, we looked up to see other members of the team holding up a beautiful dress with turquoise blue and white fabric.  It seemed as though time stood still for a few moments as we held it up to her, much like the fitting of the prized glass slipper...

Perfect fit.

Perfect price too, at only 4000 Cameroonian Francs.  My friend and I pooled our funds together, and purchased the dress for the little girl.  Throwing in a little extra, we asked the seamstress to repair her original dress and have it delivered to her mother, so that she could have a change of clothing.

In a blur of movement, the old dress was swiftly removed, and the new dress took its place.  She looked down in amazement, the light reaching her eyes.

We thanked the seamstress, and slowly walked her back to where we had found her.  As we walked, all eyes were upon her, and this time, there was a difference... her eyes were not glued to the ground.  She was looking at the world through a new perspective.  The world was, in turn, seeing her through a new perspective.

We knew this didn't solve the world's problems, that at the end of the day, this community still lives in the harsh shadows of the ongoing threat of cholera until the water project is completed...  but for a moment, for a sweet, tender moment...

We helped a little girl see that dreams do come true.  That she is not invisible.  That her life matters.  And that there is always hope.

As were were preparing to leave, the girl's mother, having seen and heard about the dress, tracked us down.  Not too hard to spot the group of Canadians in a small jungle village in Cameroon, she walked right up to us, and explained that she was the girl's mother.  Singling me out, with tears in her eyes, she thanked me for what we had done for her daughter.  I told her that I had kids too, that as a mother, we share the responsibility for the world's children, and that although we wanted to be able to do this for every girl, for every child, today, it was her daughter that we were able to do this for, and that it was an honor to come alongside of her and bless her daughter.

I gave her a big hug, and then crouched down to Cinderella, and shared a few last special moments with her, encouraging her, and loving on her.

I watched them leave as we began to gather around the Hilux, getting ready to leave the village and head back to Lewoh.  As we were waiting for a few more team members, I saw the mom rush back to our group, with a fresh coconut in her hands.  She extended the large coconut to me.  Such a tremendous gift.

Tears stung my eyes as I struggled to express to her that no thanks was needed, and smiled as I cupped my hands around the coconut, and held her eyes in mine as I gently pushed the coconut back into her hands, holding it with her for a moment, and telling her that what I wanted most of all was for her and her family to enjoy the coconut together and to have it as a celebration of this day, together as a family.  I have a peace that the love in my eyes reflected my gratitude back to her, and that she understood my heart in that moment.

From mother to mother, we understood each other.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cameroon 2012: Pregnancy Simulation Hike

Feb 19, 2012 -- somewhere in Cameroon

My eyes opened 2 minutes before 6am, and without moving my head or my body, I listened...  no rain.  I waited a few more moments for the temperature to register, and was thankful once again that my prayers had been answered...  it was once again mild.  Given that this would be our longest and last hike, mild was merciful.

The moment I turned my head to check on Hairy Beast's hangout spot up in the corner, I realized that Hairy Beast was the least of my worries.  Dizzyness hit me with a vengeance, the room spinning and making my stomach turn.  Cold sweats came next.  This had all started the night before, and I knew it would get worse before it got better, but I didn't anticipate it getting this bad at all.  Looking around the room at everyone sleeping, I wondered if anyone else would wake up to this?

I got up and stumbled my way to the latrines, thankful for the tiny bit of daylight available, and the lack of roofs in what would be the cleanest latrines and most well lit ones we had access to in Cameroon.  The rain washed them out daily and the daylight poured in.

I wish the rain could come and wash this sickness away too.

There was no relief to be found.  Concerned, I wondered how I'd manage the longest hike yet while feeling like this, but thought that perhaps I could somehow stay hydrated and get through it.  I let the Captain know that I wasn't feeling well, but that I was going to do my best to finish the day's hike just the same.   Given that I hadn't yet complained on this trip, it didn't take much for him to quietly read between the lines -- the fact that I had said anything at all could only mean one thing -- I really wasn't feeling well.

As we were all waiting for our bags to get packed on the guides' motorcycles, a torrential downpour began.  This cooled the air a bit more, and gave us some extra time to rest up before the hike.  I had hoped that this would be enough to gain some strength back, but as we started to walk around 7:35, I knew it was going to take everything I had.  Somehow, the previous hike now seemed like a lovely stroll through the park.  Funny how contrasts change everything.

These were actual roads, as opposed to the jungle trails from the days before, but each step up the steep climbs was tough as I battled weakness, dizziness, and nausea.

With several stops at each village's fon/fondom palaces along the way, the 5+ hours of hiking would stretch out to a minimum 7-10 hour day.  Stopping when hiking is bittersweet - while the rest is welcomed, it makes it even harder to get going once you stop.

At the first place we stopped (or was it the second?), they offered us palm wine and cola nut.  I don't know what was worse, the sip of wine, or the taste of cola nut.  They claim that cola nut is good for settling upset stomachs -- uh-not-so-much...  it only made it worse.  The rest of the team seemed entertained by my facial expressions.  I was just trying not to gag or be rude!  :)

When I was about 7, my family went out to a seafood takeout place one summer evening.  I had fried clams.

I also had the flu.

After eating fried clams and puking nonstop for a day or two, I always associated fried clams with being sick.  It's purely psychological.  I know that if I wanted to eat fried clams, I simply would and I'd be fine, but the memory is strong enough to ensure that I will likely have no cravings for fried clams for, oh, say, a lifetime or so.

Now that I've experienced cola nut while ill, let's just say there's more of a chance that I'll ever crave fried clams than there is of me craving cola nut anytime between now and, oh, say, the end of eternity?


 We got going once again, the weather still fairly mild as we reached closer to mid-day.

After crossing a river on foot, I was offered a ride on the porter's motorcycle, but decided to press on for the time being, accepting only help carrying my two extra water bottles.

After the next fon palace, I was once again offered a ride.  I gave it some serious consideration for the first time, and while still deciding against it for the time being, I knew that I probably didn't have much resistance left in me.

As we approached the next village under the mid-day sun, my legs began to feel wobbly and every time I turned my head, the sights around me spun in slow motion.  The Captain asked how I was holding up, and I hesitated a little.  I don't remember what I said, but it was probably simply the fact that I didn't say "awesome" that tipped him off.  He called for a timeout and made us all pull over for a rest at an empty market area.  He bought us a round of bananas from a nearby woman, and we drank some more water.  I managed to keep the banana down, which surprised me.  I might even have eaten two, since they were fairly small.

After a bit of rest, I was good to give it another try.  My head was feeling a bit better, but my stomach felt as though I had heavy, hot stones in it.  Lava bowling balls, to be exact. I had been drinking water, but it didn't seem to want to go down at all.  Too many bowling balls in the way.

As we approached a very long, steep hill, the top of which we couldn't even see, I approached Kristen and admitted that I was considering hitching a ride to the top of the hill on the motorcycle, "If I accept some assistance on the toughest of hills, perhaps I can conserve some strength to be able to finish."  I explained that I didn't want to feel as though I let the team down or feel as though I had failed somehow to finish all the hikes in full.  Her answer put me at ease, and helped me affirm my decision.

I tried to focus on the positive -- how far I had come -- and not on the negative -- not being able to finish the entire week on foot, even though we were but a few miles from our hiking destination.

As we climbed up the hill, I had to shake my head... never in a million years would I have ever guessed that I'd be riding on the back of a motorcycle through the hills of a remote valley jungle in Cameroon.  Who knew?

The porter dropped me off and went back for Wendy.  The break was enough rest to keep me trekking down the other side of the hill quite a ways.  At the bottom of the next hill, he gave me one more ride.  I don't know if it was motion sickness or what, but moments after the second bike ride, I found myself on the side of the road, projectile puking into the bushes.  Some poor local happened upon the graphic scene -- I'm not sure what went through his mind, but after the third time of being violently ill, all that went through my mind was "hey, now I remember feeling this awful before...  pregnancy!"  Unfortunately, that wasn't the case this time around.  Then again, given that I felt like this for 40 weeks non-stop while pregnant, I guess one could say it was a relief that pregnancy was an impossibility.  One day was challenging enough.  280 days?

As quickly as I stopped puking and wiped my face, I kept on hiking.  It was simple -- the sooner we get there, the sooner this is over, right?

I walked for a while longer until the rest of the group caught up, and then I hitched another short ride to the school construction we'd be visiting next.

The classroom behind where I had been seated was filled with young children learning French.  I stepped into the classroom was was greeted by a well rehearsed "Bonjour Madame!"  I spoke with them in French for a few minutes, and then asked if they had a song to sing.  They broke into a song about Jesus, which brought tears to my eyes.

As the ceremony began, the kids all piled outside even though it had begun to rain, and sang a prayer over our team for safe travels, asking God to protect us home and thanking Him for having brought us to do good work here.  What an emotional experience... it was obvious that the construction of the school was vital here.  It would be hard to erase the image of rain soaked children in outdoor classrooms, with insufficient shelter from the elements, thanking God for the provision of a cement block school building to bring ease to their schooling.

As we were preparing to leave, I stood up to test out my legs and see how much more hike I had left in me, if any. I so wanted to finish with the group, to get through this strongly, but as I stood, the whole slow motion spin thing was happening again.  I knew then, in that moment, that I had managed the last of my hiking for that day.  I could simply not keep going.  I had done my best, and then some.  Accepting help and defeat is not a sign of weakness, it's also a sign of strength.

The fact that we only had a short distance to go helped with the disappointment, along with the knowledge that I really had no choice.  Wendy and I ended up both getting a ride to the village.  As we waited for the rest of the team, the village chairman's grandson climbed into my lap, and snuggled comfortably against me, not moving, just basking in being held.  Maybe he didn't feel all that great either.

Once the whole team arrived, we walked to the guest house, getting there late in the afternoon.  In all, I estimated that I had managed roughly 80-85% of the day's distance on foot.  My body was paying for it, though.  I was running a fever, and was completely exhausted.

I laid down on the cold cement floor, and within seconds, I fell into a deep sleep.  I don't know how much time passed before I woke up, all I know was that my body likely hadn't even twitched or moved the whole time I was asleep.  I was still running a low-grade fever, so I cooled off in the river for a while, made sure to keep my water intake up, and kept praying for it to pass.  I rested on and off until supper, and had a great night's sleep.  By the next morning, I felt much better.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Cameroon 2012: Sundays Are For Seeing

This is one of the last few posts from our time in Cameroon, a continuation from where this post left off...

Feb 19th, 2012

The team had heard that since the women who had been hired to help with the cooking would have to miss church due to their workload, I would "do church" with them.  Some seemed baffled by this, but I can understand that.  I'm not a pastor, or anyone qualified in anyone's eyes to lead a service.

From my perspective, though, "church" is simply the gathering of Christians in His name, a place where sinners meet at His feet.  The only thing I didn't understand was what He said about "where two or more are gathered in My name, there I will be..." since, after all, He's there even when we're alone.

The "church" is also a community, the body of Christ, where everyone is equal in His eyes and we are there to serve one another in His name.  The body shares their resources, whatever is needed, God provides through a member of the body.  That is simply how I saw the gathering I had with these women on this Sunday morning.  As they prepared food for our bodies, I would simply share spiritual food for our souls.

Bible in hand, I wandered out to the courtyard kitchen in the back of the guest house, and joined the women gathered low to the ground, preparing the mid-day meal.  I presented Dominica my Bible, and asked if she was able to read it.  She looked at the small font of the small, travel sized Bible, and said that sometimes, her eyesight isn't great, but she could read it.  I asked her if she ever had a Bible, or read one, and she shook her head.  She leaned to me and asked me to show her where the ten commandments were.  We turned to Exodus, and spent the next half hour reading through the commandments together, discussing what they meant, and how, when followed, they each led to a peaceful, well-ordered society.  We also discussed the disciples asking Jesus which of these were the most important laws, and we talked about His answer, and why it was such.  I loved the purposeful yet simple conversation, the common ground we all shared, the opportunity to learn from one another.  A few children gathered around us to listen in, as did a few men who had stood nearby.

She asked which church or religion I belonged to, and I explained that in some ways, I don't know how to answer that.  Technically, I grew up in the Catholic church, and I now attend the Wesleyan church, but I don't consider myself either one of those, nor do I see church as a building, a place.  I only consider myself a member of the body of Christ, a Christian, plain and simple, a sinner in need of a savior.  I took the opportunity to share how I felt about religion itself, by turning to Micah 6:8 and sharing what the Lord says about religion, pure religion...  "Seek Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly with your God".  I admitted to them that I am still working my way through that scripture, in search of pure religion lived out through me.  What does it mean for my life?

One of the women reached out and touched my necklace, asking about it, turning the cross pendant over and seeing the scripture on the back.

Reaching up to run my fingers on the deep groves where my life scripture had been permanently etched, tears came to my eyes.  Smiling through the tears, I turned to 2 Cor 4:7-18 in the Bible I had brought, and we read it out loud, together, stopping every few verses to explain, discuss, share.  The world disappeared as we gathered over these words, timeless as they were, relevant to us all...  and yet I couldn't help but wonder what went through these women's minds as I shared my heart on this scripture while watching their strong, calloused hands chop vegetables...

their weary, weighted shoulders...

their aching backs...

the depth of understanding in their eyes...

all too achingly familiar.

What went through their minds, while sharing His words on being hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted and struck down, death and life intertwined -- real life, real hardship, real suffering...  What went through the minds of these women who live it daily and had lived it their entire lives.  Did they see me, my smile, my white skin, my material wealth by contrast, as someone who can not relate or does not understand them?  Did they recognize me as one of their own, or do they see me as someone who has not earned the ability to preach about this scripture from experience?

Do they see beyond the surface, beyond the crimson bead of blood, the stain of sin, beyond the white pearl reminder that He hung His life against the cross to purify those stains?

Do they see beyond the small heart, curved and cupped like His hand, cradling us, reminding us to Whom we belong, to Whom we ALL belong... we are His?

Do they see far beyond the small pressed cross and see the invisible one, the one pressed against my life?  The one with scars that bend my knees low, my body tired, my heart wrung and wrecked, and my soul longing for Home?

Do they see that, like them, I've known little else but this, the brokenness He speaks of?   That I, too, sometimes wonder if anyone can relate?

Do they see beyond, beyond the surface, beyond who I really am, beyond me...  and see why I am, there, more at home among them than elsewhere?  Do they see Him somewhere in me?