“This Is Africa!”

Paul, the Cameroonian journalist who accompanied our ICA team on the trip through the Lebialem Highlands in the Southwest of Cameroon, had one simple answer to all the questions he couldn’t or wouldn’t explain. “This is Africa!” he exclaimed with a big disarming smile whenever “his” Canadians met something unfamiliar, unknown or unexpected. The rugged roads, the dilapidated bridges, the daily power outages, oversized beetles, the immense heat and humidity, the very warm beer – all of this, according to Paul, was “Africa”. Yet “Africa” embodied also the beautiful mountain ranges of Southwestern Cameroon, the lush vegetation of the jungle we hiked through, and the graceful bats which circled our tents in the twilight. Even the exceptional hospitality of the local people was thus covered by the big and colorful – if somewhat thin and patchy – umbrella of the continental designation.

All of us started to use the journalist’s expression, albeit with a healthy dose of self-irony, fully aware that there is no such easily identifiable thing as Africa. We all knew that Morocco is not very similar to South Africa or that South Sudan struggles with different problems than, say, the Ivory Coast. Still, “This is Africa!” became a common idiom for things we visitors from the North found remarkable and wanted to comment on without being judgmental and/or ignorant. We used it for the pronounced spiciness of homemade sauces – and the amazing taste of fresh pineapple. We sighed the words when trying discreetly to get rid of the numerous ants in the freely offered palm wine. And I myself reflected on the saying – silently – during a visit to a local Fon, a traditional ruler of the region. As always on such festive occasions, a cleric spoke a short prayer to bless the shared meal. While he made the cross, I glanced at the three women sitting next to the throne of the host; the Fon was happily married to each and every one of them. When the prayer was done, we crossed ourselves again. And I noted with a smile that the local branch of the Catholic Church lived and let live by the same motto as the ICA-team: “This is Africa!”

During our 2017 trip to Cameroon, the lighthearted quip unfortunately took on a darker meaning too, because being in Africa at times means witnessing difficult conflicts that date back to the imperialist past of the continent. The territory of the today’s independent state Cameroon for example consisted once of French and English colonies. Tensions between the English speaking minority, about 20 Percent of the 22 Million Cameroonians, and the Francophone majority have lately come to the surface. It is a conflict that should sound a bit familiar to people from Canada with its French speaking province of Québec.

When we visited Cameroon this February, world history and politics in a manner of speaking crossed our own small humanitarian expedition. As you know, once a year ICA volunteers from Canada, together with their Cameroonian partners from CIC (Center for International Cooperation), visit the schools in the Anglophone region of the Lebialem Highlands that were built and are maintained with ICA support. Interviews with teachers and students on-site are an important part of this yearly assessment. Unfortunately, this year – since all villages on our route were part of the strike against Francophone rule – we could not see any schools in session. Instead of learning in the classroom, school age children played outside, took care of younger siblings or helped their parents with fetching water or gardening.

The adults, principals, teachers and villagers, were caught between a rock and a hard place: they wanted to remain loyal to the strike but they also wanted to welcome and honor their development partners visiting from Canada. In the end, our hosts found many creative ways to do this balancing act between political action and traditional hospitality with great elegance and style. In the face of difficult circumstances, and along the way, they taught us a lesson of amazing resilience, confidence and steadfast affirmation of life. And yes, this for sure is Africa.

Lotta, ICA volunteer

Futbols!

The mountain ranges of the Lebialem Highlands in Cameroon are picturesque. “The valley”, as ICA members like to call it, is characterized by lush jungle, rolling hills and free flowing streams and rivers. However, the features that make the Lebialem Highlands beautiful are also the same features that make it formidable. The mountains act as natural barriers, which create remote and isolated communities. All ICA volunteers can attest to the difficulty of climbing and descending hill after hill, hour after hour, all the while enduring the ferocious heat and humidity!

A footpath that takes an ICA “delegation” or “entourage” five hours to hike can take the locals a mere one hour. This is impressive, especially given the fact that some Cameroonians can hike all day in shower sandals. This simple observation – mountains and sandals – points to the resiliency of the local population. They are accustomed, well adapted and undeterred by their environment. If they want to accomplish something, it will get done. This applies equally to the children who want to play football!

The first time I went to Cameroon in 2011, I noticed that every primary school has a football field. Each field exists in spite of the school’s location, which is normally at the edge of a valley or squarely on the side of a mountain. A handful of schools are lucky enough to have a flat field, but most take on the characteristics of the region. The fields have undulating hills, spiked rocks and curved surfaces. At GS Tchougui, the field is on a steep incline. This gives a distinct advantage to the team that has the high ground. At GS Njilap, which is positioned on the side of an escarpment, the field is littered with boulders. It’s not even a “field” in the normal sense of the word. At the secondary school G.T.C. Njenawung, the football pitch bends 20 degrees at midfield, so that the two nets are facing midfield but not each other.

That being said, the fields are the least of the children’s concerns. The biggest challenge is acquiring a football that can withstand such rigorous terrain. In Cameroon, just like elsewhere in the world, footballs get beat-up and deflated in no time. Even official balls are not designed to endure the daily punishment of the rough conditions of the pitch coupled with 30 or 40 football-impassioned children!

That being said, “No Dragon Too Big” is ICA’s unofficial motto. That’s why in 2014/2015, ICA partnered with One World Play project, an organization that believes that “play” is the best way of uniting communities, promoting exercise, breaking down gender barriers and, in general, allowing kids to be kids. One World Play has designed an ultra-durable football they’ve coined the “One World Futbol”. It doesn’t require inflation and always maintains its form.

In 2015, ICA obtained a shipment of 1000 Futbols and shuttled them in a van from Buea to Lewoh – about a 6 hour drive. When people saw the van, which was filled window-high with footballs, their facial expressions were priceless! Needless to say, at the rest stops we had to turn down more than a few requests for donations!

The balls were destined for the Lebialem school district, which consists of about 150 schools. Each school would receive five balls and the remaining balls were presented to the Permanent Secretary for Basic Education (a long time partner with ICA) for distribution to schools in other regions. The donation ceremony was held at Menji-Fontem (big Menji) and was widely attended by officials and the local population. The balls were a spectacular hit! ICA members returned to the valley this year and witnessed the children still using them. Not only is this a validation of the quality and value of the Futbols, but brings a feeling of satisfaction that is not easily described.

ICA understands that a single donation of materials is rarely a good development strategy, but nonetheless, we are more than satisfied that these Futbols will continue to bring smiling faces to those asymmetric fields for years to come!

Brad, ICA volunteer

Football unites!

Drinking out of a firehose

“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…

Deanna Lindblad

Water is Life

What’s in a cliché?

I’ve been reflecting of late on some of the overused and under examined sayings I have been exposed to throughout my lifetime.

“Work hard, play hard”
“You deserve a break today”
“Just do it”
“Have it your way”
“When you’ve got it flaunt it”

Recognize any of these sayings? In my mind the fact that I am so familiar with these corporate inspired jingles, and the fact that they have gained such a prevalent foothold in our collective mindset is telling; exactly what it is “telling” I will let you decide. There is another cliché that we at ICA are very familiar with, and I’m willing to wager that most of the “developed” world has never heard it. The level of its meaning goes beyond profound; it reaches into the personal and collective psyche of cultures and affects the daily existence of hundreds of millions of people. Its brevity belies the incalculable impact it has on the entire globe.

That cliché?

“Water is life”

Water is life, 3 short words; 11 letters in total. Ask someone from your world what water means to them and they might look at you with a puzzled look that is to imply “huh”? But at ICA we have asked that question many times, and we constantly get the same cliché given back to us. “Water is life”. That’s because we are asking that question in sub-Saharan Africa. It is our experience that Africans know the true meaning of water. For so many people in the world water is not about daily showers, washing the cars, filling the swimming pools, or 6 litres per flush. For many people water represents 2 hours fetching some in the morning, and 2 hours fetching some in the evening, and is the water clean enough that my family will not be sickened by it, and will the rains come this year? The routine of their life and the survival of their family is determined by the availability of good clean water. Ask an African what water means to them and if they do not respond “Water is Life” I will buy the beer.

That’s why we have always maintained a focus on working with communities to develop dependable and safe sources of drinking water. We work with communities in semi-urban settings or isolated villages far from any chance of government support. The provision of water changes things. Health increases, education levels are elevated as children are freed from the tiresome burden of fetching water from distant sources, household productivity increases, the benefits are almost immeasurable.

In March of 2016 we will again be heading to Cameroon to spend time in the Lebeliam Valley and the surrounding highlands. In addition to the construction of a school we are financing in the village of Folepi, much of our energies will be focused on working with the surrounding villages on the need for water to determine and implement the most workable and sustainable solution to that need. We are fortunate in that not only will we have the correct team of volunteers to help, but we will also have the donour support and the indigenous teams that will help ensure success.

So what’s in a cliché? I wish I knew. I have heard the phrase “Water is Life” so many times I could not begin to count, but the profound reality enveloped in that cliché has me questioning many of the slogans I have used to define my life thus far.

Check back with us in the spring for some results from this year’s trip.

Inspired by our Partnership with the Centre for International Cooperation (CIC)

In my previous post I laid out for you what makes ICA, ICA; although I mentioned our grass-roots approach and our propensity for building equal partnerships and fully collaborative approaches I should go further on this.

In Cameroon our main partnership is with the Centre for International Cooperation (CIC). CIC was founded by Professor Leke Tambo and his wife Mafua Patricia Tambo. As a team, Professor and Madame Tambo have dedicated their lives to improving the education and welfare of their people. In addition to his role with the CIC, Professor Tambo also serves Cameroon as the Secretary General for the Minister of Basic Education. Madame Tambo is deeply involved in the community, and contributes regularly to programs and events for the advancement of women’s health and education. The indigenous non-governmental organization (NGO) that they have created is dedicated to the cause of their people.

Professor and Madame Tambo have created an organization that understands the reality innately, it represents their reality; they grew up in villages very much like the ones ICA now works in. They have an empathy born of the soil, and an energy driven by concern for their fellow citizens. Any project that is undertaken by ICA is done so in full partnership with CIC, in fact most of the implementation work falls on CIC. CIC identifies the highest priority areas, CIC collects and helps interpret the foundational data collection, CIC hosts the community focus groups, CIC manages the construction, CIC prepares the reports, CIC educates the locals, finds the required trades people to assist, secures the required governmental cooperation, the list is endless.

Of course the Tambo’s do not conduct this important work without a wide network of support from within Cameroon. Over the years they have recruited into place an organizational structure that shares their views on Cameroonians helping Cameroonians. Our relationship with CIC is a partnership of equals; both organizations have their roles to fulfill in order to realize any success. Over the years the CIC has become adept at building any project on time, on budget and “on” quality, while still ensuring that the original intent of the program is never lost. For us at ICA the value of this relationship can not be overstated. We have developed a level of candor, professionalism and trust between the organizations that ensures that when things do start to go awry, as they will with any human endeavor, there is a comfort level within the communications that guarantees frank and open critical discussions and thereby enables the proper corrective measures. CIC relies on ICA to finance operations, but CIC has far more invested, this is their people, this is their country, this is their life. CIC is a vital part of what makes ICA.

It is an honor to work with Professor and Madame Tambo, two inspiring individuals who have helped change the educational environment within Cameroon.

A message from Ed Smith

People often ask us what’s different about ICA. They may be wondering why they should give to ICA and not one of the multitude of other charities working on humanitarian issues around the world. At ICA we believe our strength emanates from our dedicated volunteer base and our intentional relatively small size. What we lack in numbers or resources we make up for in steadfast vision of purpose. This is a lesson learned from trial and error, but also from experience, we have learned that no solution is ever as quick and easy as it seems, just as no problem is as daunting as it first appears. What are required to achieve success are a long term commitment and a dedication to working with people and communities in a committed partnership of equals.

Volunteerism is core to the fibre of ICA; however “volunteer” does not equate to a lack of professionalism. We are aware of, and educated on, the ever-changing principles of international development and all of our work is conducted applying the best principles of participative and collaborative partnership. We have always come back to our desire to keep it simple. We know that by working with indigenous people we can play our role in developing appropriate solutions. We also know that the only way to truly succeed is to commit for the long term. The job is not finished just because you have finished building that school, medical clinic or water system, the successful indicators of projects and programs like this require a commitment to stay involved with the community far beyond the provision of infrastructure. ICA does that, we are there for the long term.
We build strong relationships of trust and respect at all levels within the communities, we rely on these relationships to guide our decision making in the field and create programs that lead to real, lasting change.

So…what’s different about ICA? If you support ICA nearly 100% of your donation goes to the intended project, we absorb the costs of running the charity through our Canadian volunteer base and we do not fund any travel expenses for our volunteer. If you “are ICA” it’s because you believe and you are committed and you want to be a part of the solution. That’s not to say that other organizations do not espouse and nurture similar values, but I think we do it at the top of the class.

Join us and find out for yourself.

More to follow…..

Thanks to the organizers of the 11th Annual Celebration of Dance in Barrie!!

We were honoured to participate in the 11th annual Celebration of Dance in Barrie last week! The event, which featured many talented dancers from across the Barrie area, raised $1,000 for International Children’s Awareness! Thank you to everyone who participated, and a special thank-you to the organizers!

11th Annual Celebration of Dance!

International Children’s Awareness is excited to be participating in the 11th annual celebration of Dance, to be held at Barrie Central Collegiate on April 30th at 7pm!

Green Reads Partnership!

We are thrilled to announce the launch of Green Read’s recycled book vending machine!  For $2, you can buy a used book – and then donate it when you are done using it!  This green initiative will help to keep books out of our landfills, and a portion of all book sales will go to International Children’s Awareness to support our education programs!

For more information, check out the CTV segment and article at

http://barrie.ctvnews.ca/vending-machine-in-barrie-gives-old-books-a-new-life-1.1658660

 

ICA is heading to Cameroon!

International Children’s Awareness has organized a group of volunteers and will be in Cameroon from February 27th to March 12th.  We will be visiting many of the schools that ICA has built in the past, those under construction, and talking to community leaders in new villages to plan future projects.  The team will spend time in larger cities such as Douala and Yaounde, meet with members of Cameroon’s Centre for International Cooperation in Lewoh, and spend the remaining time (about half of the time) trekking to visit the more remote rural areas of the Anyah-Lewoh region.

We are excited to see how students are progressing with their studies, do some planning with community members, check on our other facilities such as the health clinic and pipe-borne water program, and to simply enjoy the beautiful country and people of Cameroon!