“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
The Union of Taxation Employees (UTE) has been supporting ICA Canada and its projects for over 10 years, including the construction of three schools and new classrooms. They don’t plan to stop anytime soon. In fact, they have recently reached the $10,000 milestone towards their next school in Cameroon!
The latest project we worked on with the UTE was the construction of new classrooms at the Rainbow Bilingual College in Dschang located in West Cameroon. It is the first private school to partner with ICA Canada for a project like this.
There have been positive impacts as soon as the new classrooms were available. The student enrollment increased by 39.4% between 2018-19 and 2019-20. The number of teachers also increased from 23 to 34 for the same period. By only adding new classrooms, we have helped increase the number of students enrolled and reduced the unemployment rate among the youth.
“The two classrooms constructed with all the laid down standards of a modern classroom have gone a long way to facilitate this teaching-learning process by providing the learners and teachers ample space and a very conducive environment. Teachers and learners can move freely and there is no interference of sound,” said Asongu Severine N., Biology teacher at the Rainbow Bilingual College.
A year ago – just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the World – a delegation from ICA Canada went to Cameroon to see the newly constructed classrooms and witness the positive impacts it has made on the community, thanks to the UTE members.
Crisis in Cameroon
There is currently an Anglophone crisis ongoing for years in the South West and North West Regions of Cameroon that has forced many people in migrating to the town of Dschang. In 2019, it was estimated that 22,000 people including 11,900 children and young adults were those, who had been displaced to Dschang. This put a stress on the existing academic institutions that weren’t equipped to take on more students in the primary and secondary schools as well as vocational training centres.
Extra classrooms and more schools need to be built on an ongoing basis, hence why we are very excited about the UTE’s pledge to build their fourth school. The students we have met in Cameroon have shared with us how much it makes a difference for them.
“Ever since coming to the Rainbow Bilingual College as a displaced person, I was fortunate enough to be placed in one of the classes donated by the ICA. The block consists of two classrooms painted in blue and white. These classrooms have not only benefitted me, but also all the other students. Thank very much for your support,” said Alemngru Glory, who is a student.
Thank you to the UTE from the bottom of our hearts for your constant support over the years to help Cameroon children with their education.
If you would like to contribute and help the UTE in reaching its $30,000 fundraising goal, you can do so here.
Monica Chow has been a volunteer with the International Children’s Awareness (ICA) since 2019 helping the organization with social media management, and taking photos and videos. Born and raised in Ottawa, Monica is a Senior Project Officer for the Government of Canada with a background in business. Prior to her current position she worked in project management, government administration and high profile agency wide committees.
She learned about the ICA from a co-worker whose son visited Cameroon a few years ago and it turns out that her union – the Public Service Alliance of Canada is affiliated with the ICA and sponsors a board member annually.
Monica felt that the fit would be right to volunteer for a smaller NGO (non-governmental organization) focused on basic human needs, such as education and clean water. She realized that she is very fortunate to live in Canada and wanted to help those, who are less fortunate. Monica also appreciates that all ICA board members are volunteers unlike the bigger NGOs.
Monica was offered the opportunity to visit Cameroon in 2019, and she took it. She witnessed firsthand some of the ICA projects, including the Rainbow Bilingual College and Lycée de Litieu where more classrooms were built. These two schools and many others are in Dschang – an area heavily impacted by the displacement of people from the south west region. During this trip, Monica and the ICA delegation brought over 1,500 pairs of eyeglasses to donate and held a pop-up eye clinic.
Monica was truly amazed by her experience in Cameroon. She especially felt honoured to visit the schools and spend time with the students. “Seeing this developing country where people live with the bare minimum while being so kind and happy humbled me,” she said.
She believes that water and education are the foundations to help any economy improve and potentially thrive on its own. “Without these fundamental pillars, Cameroon will not only remain in poverty, but will never be able to self-sustain and will always rely on outside help,” she said. Monica hopes that the ICA can help change this reality in the long run.
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