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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