Monday, December 31, 2012

You Have Come to Flash Our Eyes

"My Sister, how long will be staying?" my friend Doris asked.
"I am leaving the day after tomorrow."
"Waay, so you have come just to flash our eyes?"

Doris at the LAP Center.  Don't let the t-shirt confuse you, she is one of the kindest people I know.
Indeed, I was in Cameroon over the Christmas holiday to "flash" my Cameroonian friend's eyes.  And it was wonderful.  I had no intention on spending my Christmas break in Cameroon.  My original plan was to visit Cameroon in May or June when the weather there is absolutely perfect, but what has been a recurring scenario during the last five years, I've returned to Cameroon sooner then I expected.  I was going to spend the Christmas break visiting a friend in Malawi, but the flight schedule kept changing and finally just became too ridiculous to even attempt traveling across the continent.  My housemate convinced me that I needed to get out of Niger for the holiday and brought me to an airline ticket office where I bought a roundtrip ticket to Cameroon, departing four days later.  And it all worked out, not exactly the way I thought it would, but it did, just like it always does in Cameroon.  Like arriving at the bus station in Douala to find out there were no available buses departing from Bamenda and thus forced  to catch a ride with some random stranger or planning to take Peter and the kids swimming, but instead attending a death celebration complete with cultural dancing.

Ju-ju dancing at the Death Celebration

Although unexpected, the day was a good opportunity to spend time with Eunice's children and hold little Kate once more.

Little Kate and Sister Kate

Babila and my "cool" sunglasses

All of that dancing makes us very tired

On Christmas Eve day I took Peter and the kids shopping to buy "shiny clothes" for the following day. 

New "shiny" clothes for Christmas

I spend Christmas day with my friend Elsie, from Canada, and a few other missionaries.  Elsie is the kind of friend who you can call the day before and say you are coming and she will immediately open her home to you.  It was a wonderful day of good food and fellowship.

But that of course was not the only day I ate good food.  Many Cameroonians asked me what I was eating in Niger and tried to describe to them how little can grow in the desert.  They immediately said to  me, that means Cameroon is very blessed.  We have so much food!  I couldn't have agreed more.
For my arrival in Kumbo Emmanuella prepared my favorite Cameroonian food!

After my days in Bamenda I traveled to Kumbo to visit friends and see my new namesake. 

Franklin, Baby Carol, Kate, Baby Kate

As was expected, I was warmly greeted and enjoyed feeling cold and reminded of the beauty in the highlands of Cameroon.

My welcome sign at the Little Stone Lodge

Lake Oku
When I was on the plane from Niger to Cameroon, I met a man who works for a Maritime Security Company.  He asked me about my work and life and where I consider "home."  I told him that I don't really know.  Before he got off the plane in Lagos he gave me a toothbrush and told me to leave the toothbrush in the place that I feel most at home.  The morning I left the "Little Stone Lodge" in Kumbo,  I left this toothbrush in a drawer.  As has been the case in the past, I may be reclaiming that toothbrush earlier then I planned.

Home is, of course, not simply a physical place.  It is a sense of belonging, of remembering, and being remembered, put back together again when our journeys into the world have fractured and fragmented our sense of self.


Monday, July 30, 2012

Bye For Now

When my friend Eunice was in the hospital dying of cancer, I started communicating more with her husband, Peter, to find out about her health and the situation of her three children, Kate, Babila, and Lord.  I always appreciated that he ended our phone conversations with, "bye for now."  Uncertain if my recurring phone calls with questions that really couldn't be answered were more annoying then helpful, I appreciated this salutation.   To me it signified that it wasn't the end of the conversation, just a pause for now.  I could call again and continue my search for answers.  

Peter, Baby Kate, Babila, and Lord
I returned to Cameroon at the end of June to collect six month post data on the efficacy of the audio program to promote exclusive breastfeeding, train health workers in using the audio program in their antenatal clinics, verify the translation of the audio program into two local language, arrange for the recording and broadcasting of the audio program on two local community radio stations, co-facilitate a press conference with the local media and health delegates to share our results.  Now I certainly didn’t and couldn’t have done all of that and everything else related to his project without the assistance of wonderful, loyal, competent Cameroonians.  And that is why it is hard to say goodbye to dear, dear friends and colleagues, even if it is just for now.   

Doris and I at my going-away party
Every once in awhile I experience moments of deep connectedness, wholeness, completeness.  Its hard to exactly explain these serendipitous moments, because they are a matter of the soul, not of the mind or intellect.  They may happen in the most unlikeliest places, such as in a circa 1980 Toyota Corolla with 9 other people wedged inside or walking along a dusty road, dodging goats and chickens, aware that everyone is staring at me because I look and talk different.  Or they may occur in more predictable ways like watching the sun set while hearing the happy voices of children playing football or seeing the healthy, beautiful babies of the mothers who participated in our research program.  But it doesn't matter when or how they occur, the point is that they do, and for me they happen the most often in Cameroon.  And this, probably more then anything else, is why it so hard to say good-bye, even if it is just for now.  

Sunrise from my loft window

In the last week I compiled a list of all of the things I've learned during this project and it didn't take long to reach over 50 different items.  Some of them are quite practical like scrap metal makes excellent bread pans and how to keep a fire going, some are professional like how to get over 200 people to return over 5 times with little forewarning and explanation and write a dissertation, and many are related to learning how to allow the sorrows of this place to break my heart over and over again and the letting the joys make it whole again.  For all of the lessons learned is why it is hard to say goodbye to this project, even if it is just for now.

View of Oku Mountain from my house

But now I have said my good-byes.  All of the money for this project has been spent.  I have packed up my things and moved out of my “little stone lodge.”  I have exchanged phone numbers and emails with promises that “we are still together” if even from afar.  When I left Cameroon after serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2007, I was told that I was being “sent-on” only to return to Cameroon.  I believe that once again I am being sent on and will return to Cameroon again.  Whether for work or pleasure, I believe I will return.  Although not easy to say it, it still is bye for now.

 Tomorrow I’m leaving for Niger to begin a new job as Health and Nutrition Program Manager with Samaritan's Purse.  I’ll be based in the capital city, Niamey, and overseeing a child survival project.  That and that it is very different from Cameroon is about everything I know.  Niger is in the desert, I lived in one of the lushest places in Cameroon. Niger is predominately Muslim, I lived in the predominately Christian part of Cameroon.  I will live and primarily work exclusively with expatriates in Niger, I’ve lived by myself and worked primarily with Cameroonians.  With all of these differences I often wonder if it will be as difficult to say good-bye to Niger as it has been to Cameroon. I don’t know, I can only wait and see.  I have started a new blog to record my experiences in Niger and can be found at

It takes courage to move away from the safe place into the unknown, even when we know that the safe place offers false safety and the unknown promises us a saving intimacy with God.  We realize quite well that giving up the familiar and reaching out with open arms towards Him who transcends all our mental grasping and clinging makes us very vulnerable.  Somewhere we sense that although holding on to our illusions might lead to a truncated life, the surrender in love leads to the cross.  It is a sign of spiritual maturity when we can give up our illusory self-control and stretch out our hands to God.  But it would be just another illusion to believe that reaching out to God will free us from pain and suffering.  Often, indeed, it will take us where we rather would not go.  But we know that without going there we will not find our life.

Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Prayers of the Mother

Across this world, in homes both large and small, in neighborhoods of low, mixed, and high socioeconomic status, in moments of peace and turmoil, in a multitude of languages, there are mothers praying, crying, rejoicing, pleading on behalf of their children. This fact struck me this past week when spontaneously my American and Cameroonian mother gathered at my house this past week to pray.  In their own languages, both were offering their heart on behalf of their children.  Praying for protection, strength, and guidance.

Ma and Ma after preparing corn fufu and njamajama

 During this project of promoting exclusive breastfeeding through an audio program I have interacted with many mothers.  I’ve heard stories of women losing their husbands to death and alcoholism and display unwavering strength to provide for their children.  It continues to remind me of the strength of the bond between mother and the child that, although manifests differently in various cultures, is nonetheless invincible.  

And it reminds me of my own mother and the power of her love and prayers that enables her to support and visit me multiple times in Cameroon and join in the adventures.    

God could not be everywhere and therefore He made mothers
Jewish Proverb

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Your White Man is Back

I’ve been back in Kumbo for a little over a week now and it didn’t take long for the word to spread that I returned, or as my good friend was told, “Your White Man is back.”  It’s been good to be back and struck once more at the complexities, paradoxes, and rhythms of life.  It seems like when I’ve come back in the past, I return to bad news.  Someone has died or been injured or attacked by thieves.  This time when I returned, it was news from home that the Waldo Canyon Fire was sweeping through my parent’s neighborhood, displacing 32,000 people from their homes including my dad.   This time the reminder of the harsh realities of life didn’t immediately come from Cameroon, but from my hometown.  Because of so much smoke in the air and the large damage throughout the area it took days to find out the status of their house.  Meanwhile I was reconnecting with many Cameroonian friends who, in typical fashion, were asking about my family and “all people for that side.”  When I was able to explain to a few Cameroonians what was happening, many showed their concern and for days asked how my family was and promised to pray, demonstrating their solidarity, which is such a hallmark of the Cameroonian people. When I left Kumbo last February it was dry, dusty, and barren.  Now it is rainy and verdant green, a powerful reminder of the resiliency of the earth. I am happy to report that my parent’s home was spared from the fire and my dad has been able to return home.

Waterfall in Oku--a common site this time of year.
I am only in Kumbo for a few weeks to collect some more data and facilitate a training with a few health workers.  Last week we called for all the participants to return to fill out a post test.  It was delightful to see the participants again, this time with their babies who had been born while I was away.  I especially enjoyed asking the parents their baby names and enjoyed meeting Blessed Assurance and God Reigns.  The joy, however, was tempered with a twinge of sadness as the couple that traveled the farthest to meet us, explained that their baby had died and thus could not complete the post test.  And my joy in being back is also tempered with a twinge of sadness that this project will soon finish and my days in Cameroon are numbered.

Blessed Assurance,  one of the study participant's daughter

The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all--and to find in all of it opportunities for growth.
Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Monday, June 18, 2012

Place Matters

In public health it is often said that place matters.  In other words the built environment which includes accessibility to safe places to exercise, grocery stores, transportation, employment, and civic services person lives directly influences their health outcomes.  Lately I have been thinking about how place also matters for me spiritually.  I've been back in the United States four months and in between finishing and defending my dissertation, serving as a teaching assistant for two classes, and graduating, I've criss-crossed the country visiting friends and family before returning to Cameroon and then on to Niger.  In the next two years it is unlikely that I will be back in the States for this long, so I wanted to take advantage of seeing as many people as I could. In the process, I returned to many places that are spiritually significant to me.  Some I visited on purpose, one completely accidentally.

A couple of weeks ago I was flying from California to Florida to visit some college roommates.  My plane was delayed from California so I missed my connecting flight in Dallas.  This meant that I was booked on the next flight the following morning that involved connecting through Chicago with a 2 1/2 hour layover.  The minute I arrived in Chicago and looking at the signs for my next gate, feelings of anxiety washed over me.  I knew this wasn't simply related to travel and then remembered that I flew through Chicago in January 2011 on my way to Cameroon to begin my doctoral research.  At that time, I was filled with concerns if this project would really work.  If I was physically, emotionally, and mentally strong enough to complete everything that had to be done in order to make all of the deadlines to graduate in June 2012.  During that layover I was making last phone calls to American friends, unsure of how well we would be able to stay connected while I was away.  All of those feelings of uncertainty returned with a simple sighting of the Concourse K sign.    

During this recent layover I went and sat in O'Hare's urban garden.  The urban garden is in between Terminals 1 and 2  and provide fresh vegetables to the restaurants in the airport in a sustainable manner.  While sitting there for a few moments I reflected on all that has happened in the last year and a half.  Everything came together and I did indeed make all of the deadlines and graduated last week.   I thought about a quote from Richard Rohr who says, "A journey of faith, produces a people of faith."  As I was reflecting on that statement I realized that this last year and a half has been a journey that has deepened my faith so that I am better prepared to handle the next journey of living and working in Niger, a much more desolate and needy country then Cameroon.

Chicago O'Hare's Urban Garden
 I am leaving on Wednesday to return to Cameroon to collect 6-month post data, train health workers in using the audio program, facilitate a seminar with health delegates, and translate the script into local language so it can be broadcasted on community radios.  On July 31st I will fly from Cameroon to Niger to begin my work with Samaritan's Purse as the Health and Nutrition Program Manager.  Again, I will be flying through Chicago on my way to Cameroon.  A place that now has new spiritual significance.

Without these journeys there's something you simply don't understand about the nature of God or the nature of the soul.
Richard Rohr

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Peanut Butter Profession

I love peanut butter.  It has been a staple in my diet since junior high.  High school friends fondly remember me taking peanut butter on road trips and roommates attest to me carrying peanut butter to our college cafeteria for evening meals.   To this day my food choices are largely based on whether it pairs well with peanut butter.

When I was in college I had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua and Eastern Europe and saw how food availability directly effected children's growth and performance in school.  After college I decided to pursue international nutrition and headed to Colorado State University for a Masters Degree in Human Nutrition.  While there, a friend told me about plumpy'nut, a fortified peanut butter paste proven  effective in treating children with severe acute malnutrition.  As a peanut butter lover concerned for the plight of malnourished children I was intrigued and excited by plumpy'nut.  I started telling everyone that my life goal was to solve world hunger with peanut butter.  In 2009, Cooper Anderson did a interview about plumpy'nut in Niger and can be found on the following link: Plumpy'nut in Niger

A mother receives plumpy'nut in Gambia for her malnourished child.  Plumpy'nut comes in a packet that can easily be stored with out refrigeration or reconstitution.

I went to Cameroon as a Peace Volunteer thinking I would work with malnourished children, maybe provide them with a plumpy'nut.  Instead, I provided nutrition education for people with obesity and type II diabetes.  After Peace Corps, I went to Loma Linda University for doctoral degree in public health nutrition.  As one of the leading universities studying nuts and vegetarian diets, I thought I would research plumpy'nut for my doctoral degree.  Instead, I researched effective ways of providing breastfeeding education in Cameroon.  After I graduated from Loma Linda I thought I would take a job in academia teaching and doing research in Cameroon.  Instead, I accepted a job in Niger with Samaritan's Purse as Health and Nutrition Program Manager with my foremost responsibility to oversee the distribution of plumpy'nut.

Niger is considered to be part of West Africa.  Geographically, 80% of the country is in the Sahara Desert with the the remaining 20% in the Sahel (desert-savannah).  Due to the topography and climate in Niger, there is ongoing concern of malnutrition and food security. In 2006 The United Nations ranked Niger as the world's poorest country in the world and consistently ranks among the poorest countries in the world.   

Mother and child in Niger

In the last 30 years, Niger has endured six severe food crises, four of which occurred in the last eight years.    A few weeks ago the United Nation and the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that more then 5 million people in Niger don't have enough food.  The "hungry season" came early this year  because of sparse rains and a poor harvest.  In addition, there has been an influx of 200,000 refugees from Libya and 25,000 people who have fled Mali because of political instability.  Furthermore, many who travel to Northern Nigeria for work have been unable to do so because of Nigeria's current  unstable religious climate.  

As I reflect on all that has happened in the last two years and ponder what will happen in the next two years, I'm filled with joy, uncertainty, fear, gratitude, concern, and awe.  This isn't exactly how I thought my life would go.  A year and half ago when I was preparing to go back to Cameroon for my research, I told myself that this would be the LAST time that I would move back to Africa for a lengthy period of time.  However, when I came back to America last February, I quickly realized the I'm not ready to live in America for a lengthy period of time.  There is still so much more I want to learn and experience, particularly related to child malnutrition.  The statistics in Niger are overwhelming and intimidating.  The task seems huge and relentless.  Its so different from Cameroon, a country I have become quite familiar with these last four years. I wonder if I will have the opportunities to develop the same connections with the people.  But  I'm going forth, excited to have the opportunity to finally work with plumpy'nut and child malnutrition and trusting once more that God will provide for body and soul in the foreign land.  
Vocation at the deepest level is this, "This is something I can not do, for reasons I am unable to explain to anyone else and don't fully understand myself, but that are nonetheless compelling.

Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Lessons from Statistics

For the past few weeks I've been statistically analyzing participants' answers to the pre and post test to evaluate if the audio program resulted in changes in knowledge, beliefs, benefits, barriers, and intention to exclusively breastfeed.  One of my options in analyzing the data was to collapse all of the participants answers into dichotomous data (yes, no answers).  Initially this seemed like a simple, straightforward way to determine if the intervention worked--either participants improved their knowledge as a result of listening to the program or they didn't.  Thinking about analyzing the data this way made me think about how often in life I like to look at things as yes or no, black or white, living in America or living in Cameroon.  It seems neater to divide life into two distinct categories, but as Oriah says in her book The Dance, "Neatness is really only preferable in bathrooms and in written reports" (or in my case, a dissertation).

Life isn't neat and black or white. Its lived in the midst of changes and gradients.  So instead of analyzing the data as yes or no, I sought to analyze how participants changed within a gradient.  Some drastically improved, some stayed the same, some actually decreased and overall the audio program was effective in improving knowledge and benefits, but not beliefs, barriers, or intention to exclusively breastfeed.  As I've been analyzing changes amongst the participants, I've been thinking about change in general.  Not just how to best analyze it, but the rate at which it can happen.  Today is Palm Sunday, the day in which Jesus comes triumphantly riding on a donkey amongst people shouting "Hosanna!"  Yet, a few days later, things have drastically changed as Jesus is spit upon and mocked.  Change in life is inevitable (and I think really analyzing the change is inevitable also), but I believe it also brings new insight and significance.  I know that going through the statistical analysis brought new insight to me and hopefully the changes in the participants were not just statistically signficant, but life significant.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

White Man Country

I arrived in America, or White Man Country as it is known in Cameroonian Pidgin, two weeks ago.  Before I left Cameroon I stayed with a Canadian Baptist Missionary for a few days.  She's been in Cameroon for over sixteen years and told me that each time she goes back to Canada she experiences it differently.  I would say that is also true for me as I've experienced this re-entry to America very differently then the first time.  Generally I feel a huge sense of relief to not constantly be thinking of alternatives if the electricity goes off, the internet stops working, if money isn't transferred, if the participants don't show up, if I lose the data or is stolen, if the car breaks down.

Since being away from America for over a year I anticipated having a hard time readjusting, but besides some initial shocks of how much more technology is integrated in the American way of life, I feel the adjustment has gone pretty smoothly. I'm not speaking Pidgin to everyone and the words "ashia" and "you are welcome" aren't coming out of my mouth at the beginning or end of every sentence, as I feared.  I almost started a conversation with man on the plane by stating the obvious, "You are studying?" but stopped myself and after spending the next 10 minutes reassessing I successfully started it the American way.  For the first couple of days back I greeted everyone on the running trail with holding up two hands, which is appropriate in Cameroon, but looks like I'm declaring surrender in America.  However, I will say that the lack of greetings in America is a bit of a culture-shock.  I'm not saying we have to go through all of the questions of how you slept the night before, how is your health, how is your family, and make an obvious statement about their presence or their work that is typical of Cameroonian greetings, but a simple, "Hello" or "Good morning"would be nice.  The last night I spent with Peter, Lord, Babila, and Lord I told Peter that in America we don't say "ashia."  He asked me what we do when we pass someone who is working and I explained that we just pass on by without saying anything. He was flabbergasted.

As I've reflected on why this re-entry has been less of a shock then the first time, I've come up with a couple of thoughts.  The predominant thought is that life is just different in Cameroon then it is in America.  I speak differently, dress differently, eat differently, travel differently, and interact with friends differently.  Its not bad, its just different.  I can't make America more like Cameroon and I can't make Cameroon like America.  When I first had that realization I worried that it would result in feeling like I was two different people, Cameroon Kate and America Kate, but it actually hasn't and instead has brought reassurance.  God is still the same and His call to serve Him is still the same.  Here and everywhere else in the world.      

Grateful for the advances in science and technology, we make careful use of their products, on guard against idolatry and harmful research,
and careful to use them in ways that answer God's demands to love our neighbor and to care for the earth and its creatures.
As followers of Jesus Christ, living in this world--which some seek to control, but which others view with despair--we declare with joy and trust:
Our world belongs to God!
Our World Belongs to God Contemporary Testimony 52, 1 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Race of Hope 2012

Ever since I knew I was coming back to Cameroon I planned to do the Race of Hope up Mt. Cameroon, the highest peak in West Africa.  I found some people in Kumbo and began training with them last November.   One of the people I was training with, Kasimo, helped me register for the race in December.  At first he said I could register as a Cameroonian because I have a Cameroon identification card.  He sent the money to Bamenda and a few days later he came back and said that I had to register as a foreigner and pay even more for the registration.  I obliged and sent a copy of my passport and the 50,000 CFA (~$100) registration fee.  About two weeks ago Kasimo came to my house and said that I couldn't do the race at all because I was supposed to do a qualifying race to prove that I was strong enough to compete.  The person in Yaounde refused to put my name on the registered list even though Kasimo tried to convince him that I didn't need to do the qualifying race because I registered as a foreigner and had been training with him.  But it was to no avail.  The only option seemed to be to go to Buea and demand my 50,000 CFA refund since they would not let me race.  I arrived in Buea late Wednesday evening, two days before the race.  On Thursday the people from Yaounde never came.  On Friday I went to the starting area and still couldn't find anyone who could give me any information. Friday night I decided that I would use an old race number and still try to participate.  After all, I had paid the registration fee and it didn't look like I was going to get a refund.  Early this morning I, and two other girls working at the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Buea, went to the starting line to see if there was still a possible way I could participate.  We arrived at 5:30, well before any other of the participants, even though the race was supposed to start at 6:15.  We sat down on the bleachers of the stadium and waited.  A few minutes after we sat down the guy in the picture below sat down in front of us.

He turned to me and asked if I was running.  I tried to explain the confusion and that I came to Cameroon just for this race (ok, not exactly true, but it was certainly on my Cameroon agenda).  It turned out that he was one of the race officials and inside his backpack was the list of runners and the race numbers!  He looked at me and said, "Don't worry, you will run today.  Wait here."  A few minutes later he introduced himself as Roger, gave me his email address and in turn asked for mine.  Normally I would refuse, but he had the race numbers!  I decided a few annoying emails would be a small price to pay in return for the opportunity to race.  With my place in the race almost guaranteed, I walked around the starting line because it was obvious it would be awhile before the race would start.  I had my picture taken with Ringo the Internet Super hero, except he's not much of a superhero because Ringo Internet doesn't work so well.

This was the 17th edition of the Race.  It is THE race of the country and one of the most exciting events in Cameroon.  Its nationally televised and talked about on the radio for days.

An hour after meeting Roger, I had my race number and t-shirt.  I wanted to wear my dri-fit t-shirt, but another race official refused.  They said I had to wear the white cotton t-shirt so they would know I was in the marathon race, not the relay or junior race.

Around 7 am we all lined up behind the starting line.  Only an hour after it was supposed to have started.  
And they're off!  Except not me.  As we were getting ready to run about 10 different unknown Cameroonians came to take their picture with me.  I was right in the middle of doing an interview with CRTV (Cameroon Televison Radio and TV) when everyone started running and off I went.

The girls from the Adventist Hopstial took this picture of me as I ran past the hospital.  It was the last that I looked this strong or felt this good.
That is because as I started climbing the mountain it started raining.  Not too bad at first, but it was a constant drizzle.  Running in a cotton t-shirt does not help to wick away sweat an moisture.  I was about halfway up the mountain when I came to a shelter.  Inside there were many Cameroonians keeping warm and dry by sitting close to a fire.  I decided to stop for a little while just to get warm.  But then I started shivering and couldn't stop.  I had very little for breakfast that morning and my energy level was low.  I asked the Cameroonians if someone had a shirt a could borrow.  Within seconds, Johnson, pictured below, took off his coat and gave it to me.  Not long after that someone offered me a banana, then some crackers.  Although the jacket was helpful, I still didn't stop the shivering.  The only option I had was to remove my wet cotton t-shirt and sports bra.  Shortly after that someone else from CRTV wanted to interview and find out why I stopped racing.  In the middle of teeth chattering I told him it was because it was too cold!  After a few more minutes in the shelter, Johnson accompanied me back down the mountain and I returned to Buea safe and sound.

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The whole experience was so typical of Cameroon--being told different answers to one question, charged more money because I'm a foreigner, last minute decision-making that limits adequate planning, meeting the right people and just the right time, singled out for pictures and questions because I'm white, and the solidarity and kindness of Cameroonians that ultimately triumphs over the difficulties.  

Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Own Pikins

Cameroonians often say, "that is my own" instead of "mine" or "my".  I first noticed this when I returned to Cameroon in June 2010 shortly after Eunice died.  After visiting Eunice's grave I was holding Baby Kate  in a taxi and asked if she would share her groundnuts (peanuts) with me.  She promptly said, "No, they are my own."  Since meeting Eunice in 2005 her children have become a special part of my life and I now affectionately call them my own pikins.  This past year has included many special memories with them beginning by celebrating Youth Day last February and concluding by celebrating Youth Day again and an afternoon of swimming.

Every major holiday in Cameroon is celebrated with children marching in an open field.  Below is a picture of a child holding the sign board for the Sacred Heart Primary School, where Lord, Babila, and Kate attend.        

I arrived at the field just in time to see Babila and Lord march pass wearing their brightly colored uniforms.

After the marching all of the children gather to eat rice, a special treat.  I arrived to find Kate with her friends eagerly awaiting their heaped plate of rice.

After all of the marching the children do relay races.  One of the relay races includes small children wearing nothing but their underwear and running across the field to see who can dress the fastest.  All of the other people stand around and eat food and buy special treats for the children.  One of the things I bought for my pikins was alaska, which is really nothing more then frozen colored water.  I bought it shortly after Peter and I shared a memory of Eunice making alaska and ice cream and selling it for Youth Day years ago.

Baby Kate is not such a baby any more, even though she corrects people if they just call her Kate.  The days of her falling asleep in my arms are fleeting as she is getting older, but the days of making her laugh by tickling her I think will still be around for awhile.

The day after Youth Day, I took Peter and the kids to a pool that recently opened in Bamenda.  Considering that they have never been in a bathtub, much less of a swimming pool, they had no idea what to expect.  I spent an afternoon searching through heaps of European cast-off clothes lying on the ground in the market to find swimsuits for everyone and was fairly successful.  Kate's swimsuit took some innovation, but we made it work.

Thankfully I was able to borrow some water wings from a Baptist missionary to prevent everyone, including, Peter, from drowning.

Babila was scared by the water and the first time he went in he only lasted about 5 seconds before scrambling out.  He preferred to spend the time sitting in a raft in the kids pool.

And after the two days of intense stimulation and fun, there was nothing left to do, but sleep.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

My Heart Done Grow

Since graduating from college I have lived in Cameroon longer then anywhere else.  Living and working cross-culturally for an extended period of time inevitably brings change in a person's perspective and values.  Some of the changes are easy to quantify such as a deeper appreciation for reliable electricity, indoor plumbing, safe modes of transportation, paved roads, cold milk and cereal, and people who regularly use deodorant.  Some of the other changes are much more harder to explain or quantify.  When I returned to the States from Cameroon in 2007 I tried in various ways to explain why and how I miss Cameroon and Cameroonians.  This is my last week in Kumbo and as the process of saying good bye and transitioning to life in America has begun I am faced with this challenge once more.  A couple of months ago I was talking with a friend who was processing a return to the States from Liberia and I think she said it well--your heart expands or as said in Pidgin, "My heart done grow."  

The relationships I have with Cameroonians is much different then the ones I have with Americans and perhaps this is why it causes heart growth.  Cameroonian have a unique way of opening themselves up to strangers and incorporating them into their family.   They expect to see you almost everyday.   If they don't, they quickly say, "Why you lost so?" or "You have been missing!"  and will stop by unannounced to make sure you're still alive.  I am often humbled by their hospitality and their concern for me, a complete foreigner who looks and talks different from them.  Last June, when my mother was visiting we were walking around Ndop.  As we were standing and watching a man tap the palm tree for palm wine, a woman came up to us and introduced herself and then quickly invited us to her house for popcorn and a chat about our families and work.  Shortly after we left her house we both commented that if we saw two people who clearly did not belong in our neighborhood we would just walk past and wouldn't even occur to us to invite them into our home. As I reflect on the time I have spent in Cameroon this past year I am reminded of the beautiful people that have caused my heart to expand once more.     

Peter, Emmanuella, and Sidonae are my Cameroonian siblings.  My first full day in Kumbo Emmanuella went to the market with me and has been by my side every since.  The other day Emmanuella told me, "When I don't see you for four days I feel sick, now that I won't see you for four months I will just be lying dead in the mortuary."    

There are many gracious, kind, compassionate Cameroonians, but I've never encountered one like Doris.  Her husband drowned in a boating accident five years ago, leaving her with six children to raise on her own.  She comes once a week to help me clean my house and killed and prepared a whole chicken for my parents.    
Emmanuella's Mother, or "Ma" as I call her often tells me that she thinks of me as her own pikin and when she doesn't see me for sometime "her skin no feel fine."  When I do see her she gives me a warm embrace as really only a mother can.  She told me today that when I come back in June she wants to build a house for me close to hers so that "I will always be by corner so."

In addition to older women and younger girls I do have a few friends close to my own age.  Elise and Milton work in the IT department at Banso Baptist Hospital.  In the process of keeping me connected to the internet I have begun to know them and their families well.  When Sharyn Moss, an MPH student from Loma Linda visited, Elise and Milton were our Lake Oku tour guides.

In addition to the personal relationships, my heart has expanded through the beauty and serenity in Cameroon.  I often call Cameroon my "thin place" as a description of how I experience little separation between the physical and spiritual realms.  With little control over transportation and safety there is nothing else to do but pray that God will work all things out. Cameroon will forever be the place where I recalibrate, find wholeness, and expand my heart.    

Community can make us think of a safe togetherness, shared meals, common goals, and joyful celebrations…. community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another. Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own. The question, therefore, is not "How can we make community?" but "How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?"

Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
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