We travelled for 3 days on various unreliable modes of transport into what can best be described as hardcore 'Gorillas in the Mist' mountain terrain.
We arrived at Bechati, the village of our first guide, Jacob. When the children of the village saw me, they either screamed and hid behind their parents, cried or gingerly came up to touch me. I was literally the first white person they had ever seen.
A couple of adults even pushed forward a shy, 6 year old, albino boy and told him FINALLY there was someone who looked like him! I’ll never forget the look of bewilderment on his face! Before long, I was the Pied Piper of children and they all vied to have their photo taken!
After receiving a blessing (involving drinking a concoction of foul tasting, still unknown ingredients) from the village chief; Jacob, Bedwin and I, shouldered our packs and headed into the mountains for a month. Below is a photo of my tent and home for a month (not visible is the banana leaf plugging the hole in the tent! I can still smell the rain and feel the frustration of the daily battle to sleep in dry clothes in a dry tent).
Jacob could not speak any English and I could not speak any Pidgin. So began a month-long game of charades and we became good friends. He showed me bush foods safe to eat and how to spot various birds and animals, and I cooked him mashed potato (which he made edible only by adding masses of chilli!...they LOVE their fresh chilli in Cameroon)!
Through Bedwin, I found out about his past as a poacher, which is how he came to know the mountains so well and his worries about the new policy in Cameroon which stipulated that all forest guides must be literate.
He knew his days of legal employment were numbered, yet what other profession would he move into? He could not read however, he knew the forest and the wildlife inside out, back to front. I could not see sense in this new policy. I did not need him to read to me, I needed him to safely navigate me through the forest, which he did very competently.
After a month, we pulled down our camp and started back for Bechati having not spotted a single of the critically endangered gorillas (a very sad state of affairs).
We were to sleep at Jacob’s house for one night before Bedwin and I would head off to another village to meet a new guide and yet more mountains and interminable rain.
On the day of our descent, we were met by a runner. It was a teenage boy sent to let Jacob know that his sister had died and the funeral was tomorrow.
As we approached the village and Jacob’s hut, we could see a lot of people milling about. I asked Bedwin if we should pitch our tent down the road. Jacob protested and said he wanted us to sleep at his house despite all the people. Below is Jacob's wife and 3 kids plus his nephew (whose mother had just died).
His family welcomed me, shared their food with me and made me sleep in the only bed, in the only bedroom in the house. Everyone else slept on the floor. In the morning I tip-toed out to pee in the bushes and stepped over at least 30 people on dirt floor or reed mats. They gave up yet more of their food, cooked us breakfast and gave us many hugs and smiles as Bedwin and I got on motorbikes to depart for the next village.
It was only later that Bedwin explained that I had slept the night in Jacob’s elderly mother’s bed – a lady also currently grieving the loss of her daughter. I felt awful.
I also found out that on the death of his sister, Jacob now had to support his sister’s 3 children as well as the 3 of his own and his mother, all in the knowledge that he may shortly lose his job.
It was then that I decided to sponsor those 6 children’s education.
At the next village I stayed with polygamist Solomon and his 3 wives and 8 children (and yes, the scenario had me pondering many questions regarding how the set up actually worked!)
Below is recent photo of Jacob's family but only 2 wives are present.
This family had much better circumstances (having a bigger house, a plot of land and also Solomon being literate meant his job was more secure) however, still the daily toil to grow enough food, lug enough water and pay school fees was ever present.
Yet at no point did they ever ask anything of me. They opened their home and welcomed me as part of the family with open hearts. I resolved to sponsor those children too.
I stayed with them for about 5 days. They even did my hair and took a lot of sneaky shots on my camera!
Hence, for the past 4 years I have been wiring approximately $2500 per year to Bedwin, who makes the 3 day trek into the mountains each way to pay the schools in person. Obviously, Bedwin needs to take 6 days off work to do this so I pay her accommodation and food, though she asks no money for herself. Each year the price changes slightly as yet more children are old enough to start school and as they progress up the grades, their fees go up.
Jacob's kids in their uniforms.
Jacob's sister's kids in their uniforms.
Solomon's kids in their uniforms.
As I privately sponsor these 14 children, if I do not make the payment this year for their education, there is no default charity to fall back on. The simple reality is that these 14 children will have to forego their education next year.
So could I please ask that in the stead of anything baby related (as my daughter has already been given MORE than I can manage) that you help me raise the funds to send these children to school.
I have saved almost 1/4 and if we reach this year’s fee goal, I will save it and put it towards next year’s fees. I hope to support these children into tertiary education so my sponsorship will be ongoing for the next 15+ years.
I plan someday, many years from now, to take my daughter to visit Jacob, Solomon and their families in Cameroon. I feel that passing on the gift of helping others to my daughter is far more beneficial than clothes or toys.
- Mia Lawrence
- Amber Matthews
- Gert Van Tonder
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