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.