The 13th thing on your mind

An article written for NGO ‘The Malima Project,’ an independent primary school in rural Cameroon. In July 2013, I aided the set up and running of this school by assisting local employees with administration, collating children’s work to send to sponsors, and producing an update newsletter for sponsors and those involved in the school. Emphasis was placed on menial administration and translation, so as to support and aid the local teachers. This is the newsletter produced for the student’s sponsors. 

Not wanting to leave out any part of my exhilarating, breathtaking and utterly life changing experience of my three-week visit to Cameroon, Africa, upon my return to Valencia I immediately began drafting an elaborate and detailed account of my experience in Gouria.

After my second pen ran out of ink and I was beginning to fear for the sustainability of the forests, I realized two things; one, it would be entirely unfathomable to even attempt to contain every moment of my exceptional experience within the confinements of a few sheets of paper and two; you, the reader, probably has twelve other things on your mind, and the last thing you want to do is wade through my literary blather. So, I decided to merely describe to you several key moments of my trip. But how should I decide which tales to share and which to omit? Do I tell you about the time a donkey galloped onto the football pitch, interrupting the game? Or shall I describe those children who, delighted and breathless, sought me out almost every morning to share the nuts and fruit they’d collected? Should I emphasize the daily hardships of the lives of the villagers in Gouria, from the difficulties of collecting and carrying water over kilometres of land to the gripping illnesses and ominous mortality rates; Or should I simply focus on the little wonders, from the first time a child hugged me without fear of the colour of my skin, or the way a warm Coke tastes after a tiring 4 hour hike into the valley? There is not enough ink in the world to describe every astounding experience of my time spent in Gouria; thus, I will try to stick to the basic, the relevant and the poignant.

I arrived in Gouria in August, during the rainy season, when water is plentiful and the landscape lush. I’d just finished my A-levels at Cambridge House; my Spanish was meagre and my French worse, but there I was in Africa, fresh faced and eager for an adventure.  I was travelling to the extreme north of Cameroon with my two amicable Spanish companions, Elena and Miguel. Together, we travelled from Valencia to Casablanca, Casablanca to Douala, Douala to Garoua then boarded a 6 hour minivan to reach the small village which houses Malima Primary School, where we would be working for the following 18 days. The first thing that I noticed upon exiting the bus after our leg-numbing 6 hour trip from the airport in Garoua, my backside still tensed and bruised, was the air of serenity that nestled over the town; the dogs too lazy to bark and the donkeys too passive to bray. The village of Gouria is accompanied by a stunning backdrop of rocky mountain ranges and rich greenery.  The inhabitants are remarkably friendly, pleased to gabble away at our entourage in either French, the official language of Cameroon, or Kapsiki, the regional tongue, laughing off our incomprehension with ease.

These villagers lead simple lives; lives which have not varied in many ways from the lives their forefathers led; they reside in simple mud brick houses, constructed with either thatched or corrugated iron roofing, and eat simple yet filling meals of maize, beans and bread, often accompanied by the occasional chicken, goat or bull meat. Those who drink do so merrily, sipping hot wine out of wooden handcrafted bowls or warm beer sold at the markets.

Serene and tranquil as it may be, the inhabitants of Gouria work hard to maintain such a lifestyle. The women work in the fields for as many hours as the day allows, often with young babies strapped to their backs, before returning home at dusk to clean, mend and make clothes, and to cook the daily meal for their family. Their one day off a week is Sunday; on this day, almost everyone dresses in their Sunday best and diligently heads off to the church of their respective religion. Religious intolerance is non-existent in the village, with Muslims, Christians, Catholics and yes, even atheists, co-existing alongside one another peacefully.

The Malima primary school is the pride and joy of the area. Funded solely by sponsors who, for as little as 12 eurso a month, support a child throughout the entirety of their basic education, sets a shining example for other schools within the area. The classrooms are simple, containing solid wooden desks and a large chalkboard, and well-kept, with cheerful paintings decorating the outside of the school. The school runs efficiently, the teachers are enthusiastic and the children, although many of them thin and sporting clothes so ragged and worn they serve very little purpose at all, are energetic and eager to learn.  The school hires local teachers, employing males and females as equals, serving as a catalyst to break many gender-specific moulds the village harbours.

Overall, I felt comfortable in my surroundings; having been debriefed well beforehand, little came as a shock to me. Aside from one 12 hour bout of gastro, (during which, so sure I’d die, I’d begun mentally transcribing my Will), I remained perfectly healthy. I’d been cautioned about the latrine I would be using (and, to be frank, I’ve seen worse in bars). I’d also been informed of the living conditions and expected about almost everything I was to encounter.

Saying this, however, there was a time during one particularly long day when I found myself becoming fed up and cranky over trivial discomforts; my backside was sore from enduring hours of bumping along on the back of a motorcycle, I’d forgotten my raincoat (and naturally, it was raining), and all I wanted was a hot meal, an icy drink, my Facebook open in front of me and a sympathetic ear who could listen to me whine about all of my woes and misfortunes.

During this journey, our convoy of motorbikes made a stop outside a house. Just as I was about to open my mouth to pretentiously demand an explanation for the further prolonging of my lunch, Carge, our friend and guide, explained that we were there to pay our respects to a family who had recently lost their 11 year old son to a likely preventable disease. You can imagine how quickly my mouth snapped shut.

The front yard was littered with neighbours and friends resting on mats on the grass, there to offer their collective support and grieve together. We shook hands with the grandparents, delivering our condolences while they thanked us, dismissing this tragedy as a mere case of “c’est la vie.”

We then shuffled into the house to speak to the mother of the child. After being introduced, we clumsily stepped forward to mumble our condolences; but our outstretched palms were ignored, our gazes unmet. The mother didn’t even seem to register our presence. She merely sat, slouched in the doorway of her house, absentmindedly spoon-feeding sloppy soup to the toddler at propped at her feet, staring straight ahead. Fat tears dribbled down her cheeks, leaving large oily streaks in their wake and splashed onto her dress, but she made no movement to wipe them away. She merely sat, staring, weeping silently.

Gingerly, we crept away.

This event was at the back of my mind for days. How can we live our day to day lives, emphasizing such trivialities while such tragedies are occurring every minute on a global scale? In our fast paced lives, with our fancy cars and expensive handbags, it is easy to forget about the lives of people we’ve never met.  Even in the village, laughing with my friends over a beer or attempting to drive a motorcycle, I too would often forget about their daily plights. But, every now and again, an event would snap me back to the reality of poverty. I would see a young girl carrying 8 litres of water upon her head along the rocky path to her house. I would crush a quartered paracetamol for a child lying in the dust at school, his fever so severe he could not lift himself from the ground. I would buy a piece of baked bread for a child whose stick limbs stuck out of their torn clothes; and I would remember the luxuries I had; and I would regret all the times I wasted my money on pointless purchases.

Whilst I helped as best as I could in the school, from aiding the administrative side of the sponsorship program to teaching young classes English songs and games, I don’t feel I made a revolutionary impact to the development of the village which, in a roundabout way, is precisely what the Malima Primary School wanted me to do. The school is not there to provide temporary relief or aid to the inhabitants; it is not there to change the way the people live. The school is there to provide a solid education to the children lucky enough to have sponsors to support them. It is there to give both boys and girls a broader range of options in their lives, to allow them to become educated in order to educate others, to serve as role models to other members of their community.

My time in Gouria was simply astounding. I learnt so much, I met so many people and I changed for the better. So, I leave you with one more thought;

Although those twelve things which were on your mind upon commencing to read this article are all probably still as evident and important as before, I ask you to do one thing; please, on top of those multiple tasks and annoyances you have to see to, keep one more thing in your mind. Keep in your mind Tige or Beatrice, or perhaps Vandi or Koda. Keep in your mind what you have read today. Keep in your mind the lives of those living through the hardships of poverty on the other side of the world. Relate to them. Think about them. And, if your wallet and empathy allows it, help them. Visit www.malimaproject.org to help Tige, Beatrice, Vandi or Koda obtain a solid education.

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