“Reality has a tendency to be so uncomfortably real”
As Neil Peart – whose band Rush was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame – put it in his book documenting his bicycle tour of West Africa.
I read his book in the month leading up to my visit to Cameroon. That’s how I prepare for any new experience in life, by overloading myself with information. In addition to reading Peart’s book I also researched the history of the country, zoology, entomology, herpetology, geology and hydrology of the jungle region. The Ecologist in me craves this type of information, but I also wanted to know everything I could about the issues faced by Cameroonian women as well as workings of the education system, and ins and outs of what has been documented about the development of the area. I spoke to people that had been there, worked there and lived there. I know it sounds cliché, but none of that prepared me for the reality.
Physically, an ICA monitoring expedition like the one I was part of is a challenge. I had trained for four months building up my cardio and the muscle memory required for the “uphills”. Who knew the “downhills” could be that demanding? I kept close tabs on my water and food intake and rested as much as possible. The heat and humidity are not usually a problem for me, so I faired pretty well. I surprised myself with how good, energized and strong I felt on the 2 to 4-hour long treks between villages.
Our mission was to interview high school-aged students about their experience in ICA primary schools and to get some basic information about their transition to high school. We had the pleasure of visiting the newest primary school that is currently under construction in the remote village of Folepi. The care shown by the local community, who came out to meet us was incredible to witness. I was also a member of a team that looked at the existing water systems and possibilities for future expansion of secondary lines and treatment options. It was a lot of walking!
In the days since returning home, I have likened the emotional experience to “drinking out of a firehose”. There is so much to process and it comes at you so fast. Day in and day out, there were all new, well outside of your comfort zone and evoking strong emotional responses (if you are anything like me). I knew that the interviews would be difficult to conduct, especially with the young women. Their reality dictates that they have few options available to them. I found out that each of them had a dream for their future. They were generally very clear about what they wanted for their life’s path. Most of them expressed a need to use their talents to help their families and their village. The strong sense of community among these young people is inspiring.
I spent hours each night lying awake in my tent assessing my own life thinking about my family, my children and everything we take for granted. With few life experiences to draw from in these situations, it is about building on what you know to create a new version of what is true for you.
Here are some of my new truths:
- Life can be so beautifully simple
- Mothers are mothers everywhere
- Education is a game changer
- Wild is relative
- Water is life
- It most definitely takes a village
The Lebialem Valley is home to some of the kindest and most generous people I have had the privilege to meet. It is a harsh and unforgiving existence in many ways, and yet it is indescribably beautiful. My time there was amazing, exhausting, and heartbreaking, but without question I would do it again tomorrow. It has been the most rewarding experience of my life. I found it strange how wherever we went, the people were thanking us…Thanking us? I wanted to say: “trust me, I am getting way more out of this than you are!”
To the people I met along the trail and in the villages of Njilap, Lekeng, Bechati, Folepi, Nkong, Bangang, Besali, Menji Fonjumetaw, Ndumbin, Tschogi and Lewoh, I will see you again.
A part of me belongs now to those hills.
There aren’t words to express how grateful I am to the CIC/ICA and their fearless leaders for offering me this opportunity to be so totally uncomfortable, grow and learn from their vast knowledge. There is still much work to do.
ICA Board Member