“Reality has a tendency to be so uncomfortably real”, at least that’s how Neil Peart (of Canadian rock fame) put it in his book documenting his bicycle tour of West Africa. I read his account in the month leading up to my visit to Cameroon. That’s how I prepare for any new experience in life, I information overload. I read Neil’s book but I also researched the history of the country, the 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 women’s issues; the workings of the education system; the ins and outs of what has been documented about the development of the area. I spoke to people that had been there, worked there, lived there and 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 intakes and got as much rest as possible. The heat and humidity are not usually a problem for me so I faired pretty well I surprised myself with how good I felt, how energized, how strong on the 2-4 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 secondary school. We had the pleasure of visiting the newest primary school, currently under construction in the remote village of Folepi. The care that has been taken by the community (who all came out to meet us) was incredible to witness. In addition, I was part of a team that looked at the existing water systems and the possibilities for future expansion of secondary lines and treatment options. It was a lot of walking!
In the days since my return 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, all new, all well outside of your comfort zone, all evoking strong emotional responses (if you are anything like me). I knew going in that the interviews would be difficult, especially with the young women. Their reality dictates that they have few options available to them. I found 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 was inspiring.
I spent hours each night lying awake in my tent assessing my own life, thinking about my family, my children, and all we take for granted. With few life experiences to draw from in these situations, it is really 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, most generous people I have had the privilege to meet. It is a harsh, unforgiving existence in many ways and yet, it is indescribably beautiful. My time there was amazing, exhausting, heartbreaking and 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 of course, Lewoh, I will see you again one day soon. A part of me now belongs to those hills.
There really aren’t words to express how grateful I am to CIC/ICA and your fearless leaders for offering me this opportunity to be so totally uncomfortable, to grow and learn from your vast knowledge. There is much work still to do…