Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Matthias' visit to Cameroon

My flight from Amsterdam to Zurich had a late start and I already only had 55 minutes to change planes. When we arrived in Zurich 30 minutes left for me to find my way through an airport I’d never been through and catch my plane. Fortunately, I got there as the plane was still boarding. We were off to another late start, because somebody had lost their passport. But after long flight I finally arrived into Cameroon and was quickly through formalities and out with my luggage.

Naomi's birtday surprise

I got home and gave Naomi the surprise of her life because she had no clue that I was coming on her birthday, July the 4th. Over the following weeks I went out with friends to the club, to Espresso (a sort of café) and hung out at the Saudi Ambassador’s house with his son, my best friend.

Buea and Limbe

My family and I went to Buea and stayed at a colleague’s house, from where we visited Limbe to go to the beach.

At the creek in Limbe

It annoyed me that for the first time I went to Buea and didn’t climb Mt. Cameroon. I miss climbing it. The beach was pretty good, though, but cold; especially the creek at Seme New Beach.

"Red eye effect" Salome

At the road side in Douala on our way back from Buea, getting my favorite Cameroonian snack: Soya, sliced, freshly roasted beef


A week later we traveled to Kribi and had a good time there.

Playing games in the bukarou

As usual, we went to Grand Batanga where the fishermen prepared us some really good grilled yellow fin tuna and great shrimp.

The best seafood ever

After coming back to Yaoundé, we spent a couple days really working on the house: fixing the shower, hanging up the basketball hoop, which involved moving lights, and doing electrical stuff. We worked on the water heater, painted Salome’s room and set up her closet.

Far North Province

I then had the opportunity to join my mom’s Cameroonian colleague, Valéry, and fly up to Maroua in the Extreme North province to visit some of the villages they have village grain banks in. I’d been there with my mom more than two years ago, when the project got started.

Dark clouds announcing the next rain storm

But this time it was rainy season, and not the long dry period as it was the case with my first trip up North.

On this trip we visited I believe it was over 10 villages in 3 days, doing a lot of off-roading in pickups only one of which had 4 wheel drive.

Trying to not get lost

We got stuck once in the pickup with 4 wheel drive after we had left the other car across the river since we didn’t want to take the risk with that one. It took some 25- 30 villagers helping us to get the pick up out.

Preparing the terrain to cross the water

They were lifting all sides of the car in turn to try and get enough traction on other wheels for the car to move forward. After 30-45 minutes of struggling and fighting with the car, it was freed and we were on our way again.

Discussing with the villagers the running of their grainbank

The purpose of the visit was on one side to see the progress of the grain bank program, but on the other side to sort out problems in a few of the villages related to one of the guidance counselors.

A few villages fell victim to bad leadership

The second village we visited the first day had the greatest problems. This was mostly because the guidance counselor had not done his job of visiting them regularly and helping them keep records of their stocks. This had resulted in people like himself misusing their power and taking from the stocks.This village had not been the only one that had suffered from his poor job.

Houses overgrown by the new crops

But there were also communities we visited that had refused to give this man anything and had continued to run their grain bank properly by themselves. We were all very proud of these villagers. At times it was difficult to hear the discussions because it was raining cats and dogs on the aluminum roofs. We tried to go to a fourth village but decided to head home instead before it would become impossible to cross the river and hard flowing streams. The next day we had a similar situation elsewhere, but fortunately they are exceptions rather than the rule!

One of the most successful villages: a women-run grain bank

We then went to several villages with a different guidance counselor and all of those villages were thriving! The only complaints were that they didn’t have a good and big enough granary.

So for those villages, the next help they need is a good storage facility. The villagers there were all very happy with the program, they could already see a noticeable difference in their life only 2 years into the program! The next day we went to 2 more villages and we heard once again more compliments and happiness.

Scary Moments

The day before our scheduled flight back was a Sunday and we went to a nearby small town called Mokolo to visit the dam that supplied the town with water. While we were walking along the dam walls (which were made of pure stone, no concrete) an elderly security guard walked up to greet us. As we greeted him, I noticed that he was stepping on the tail of a snake that was struggling to get free. Thinking that the security guard was aware of it, I pointed it out to the people I was traveling with to which they were all startled, and the guard jumped back. The freed snake slithered to escape and slithered straight between the legs of the Member of Parliament I was traveling with. It was passing right by my feet and my first instinct was a calculated stomp to the head. But off by an inch or two, I stomped the spine of the snake instead, to which it immediately struck and bit my foot. Luckily I was wearing big basketball shoes because the snake bit the shoe. I picked up my shoe as the others were shouting in surprise of what I was doing. The snake escaped but it sure is something I’ll remember.

Frustrating bureaucracy

The next day we were about to leave for the airport but I couldn’t find my ticket. We called the agency and they said it was no problem, I would be on the plane. We were among the first at the airport and wanted to check in, but the person behind the desk told us to wait because it was too early. So we waited and waited, until we saw some other people had been helped. We went over again but they still told us to wait. In the end and after lots of frustration, stress and shouting, that could be heard over the jet engines, we still weren’t on the plane when it left. They had overbooked the plane and gave priority to people who had tickets for flights only two days later, or even a week, claiming that we hadn’t confirmed the return ticket. These people were being helped and some of them got on the plane while we had neither!

After leaving the airport, we went to a local agent that verifies claims and writes up reports as evidence for lawsuits. He confirmed everything, that we had been at the airport, that the plane came and left and we were still there. Valéry says he will sue the company; not for the money (that would just be a bonus) but for a precedent, because the airline company thinks that people like us won’t give problems. They are in for a very rude awakening.

The saga continues

We had to stay in Maroua an extra 2 days, so until Wednesday. On Tuesday we both went to the market in down town Maroua. There I bought a snakeskin belt and iguana skin phone case, but they demanded outrageous prices for some women’s wallets that I wanted to get for my sisters and mom. I later found a small purse that I liked a lot more than the wallets, also made out of snake skin. But I was disappointed to find out that there was only one left and because I knew that if I gave it to one of my sisters, the other would want to use it and there would be plenty of arguing, I decided not to get it.

So on Wednesday we went back again to the airport, and wanted to check in. The very same guy was at the desk and allowed Valéry to check in, but not me because I didn’t have a ticket. Once again it became a huge hassle with lots of calls and some shouting; naturally we became stressed. It was only when Valerie asked for his luggage back that the guy went to the desk and got me my boarding pass. He had had it all ready the whole time, but was just teasing and toying with us!

Once they started boarding, we pushed and forced our way to be among the first on the plane to make sure that we got on it, and sure enough, the plane had been overbooked like it had been on Monday!

My next journey: Tuscon, Arizona

My time in Cameroon got cut a bit short when an opportunity opened up for me in the PCUSA’s Young Adult Volunteer Program in Tuscon, AZ. It turned out very difficult to find a flight out of Cameroon that would bring me in time to start the program with the other volunteers, but thankfully my parents succeeded. So the next year I will spend working in the US with Mexican immigrants and low income families, and I am very excited about that!

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