Working with adversity

Almost any time of day while I am sitting at my laptop in my tiny unfurnished house, the electric is shutting down and my fluorescent bulb blinks on and off. I finally put a flashlight next to my computer so I don’t fumble around in the dark . Yesterday the power went off at 1 pm in the afternoon. Finally around 7 pm while I was sitting with some neighbors, eating in a darkened room with light from a torch, the fluorescent bulb flickered and then we had light. All the country’s electric is supplied by an American corporation AES. Kerin, a teacher said that the initials stood for… always expect shortages…While we were sitting in the dark we had been discussing the situation in rural village schools where both of them taught. There are no roads so they trek there and back twice a week, rather than risking their lives on a motorbike. My hosts were a husband and wife, a principal and a teacher who are assigned by the government to different posts every few years. They cannot refuse the placement since there are barely any jobs for educated people in this country. Dedicated to improving the lives of farm children,they succeeded in changing the rural family’s ideas about education. They have raised school attendance from 75 students to over 200 in the last two years. There work week begins on Sunday when they hike over 3.5 hours to the village where they teach. Their accommodations are basic; a rented room with an outdoor bathroom. By Thursday they usually begin their hike back to Fundong to a fairly comfortable home with amenities like cable television and an indoor bathroom. I was amazed at their positive attitude toward their work as their life was being dictated to them by the government. Both well educated and worldly even though they had never left Cameroon, they bought computers for the rural high school and carried them on foot back to the village with help from some of their students. Rarely will the government schools receive enough financial support to hire enough teachers, provide books, supplies or even access to clean water.

Saturday I revisited my favorite Fulani (muslim) village by truck instead of the treacherous motorcycle ride I had to make last year. The daughter of the head of the village is fourteen years old and speaks English very well. Last time I was here she did all the translating for the women, most of who never went to school. In the last eight to ten years, Fulani girls are allowed to get an education. When I asked Hawra how large her classes were at the bi-lingual high school, she said 118 students. When I complemented her on her English proficiency she mentioned that the government was suggesting that students begin studying their native dialect as well as English to preserve their culture. I immediately decided that this was a subversive way of curtailing the growth of an educated society. Even now many of the children in public elementary school are not able to hold a conversation in English even though they are taught in English,. While I was talking with Hawra, the women of Bam were waiting patiently for me, the guest of honor, to greet them and discuss their water situation. They too take water from a dirty stream. Sido, the head of the compound showed us the beginning of a gravity water supply but as with ever other village I had visited, they needed money to finish it. I am advising everyone asking for funding for clean water access to gather all the facts and make a proposal that I can submit to aid organizations in the States.
The typical second problem presented was funding for small business, which brings up another surprising discovery I made today. I had hoped to finance several groups and individuals with funds that could be deposited in the credit union in town. I assumed they could borrow at a low interest rate, using their deposit as collateral. Speaking with a friend, , who is on the board at the bank, I was surprised to find out the interest on borrowed money was 15% a year. The positive side of this story is that a group of at least 8 people who pool their resources, can borrow up to five times of the total amount in all their accounts. I had actually funded a group of women last year with 25,000cff ($50). Each woman added whatever she could over the year and the value of the account today is 132,000cff which allows them to borrow up to 600,000cff.
Thursday the bi-lingual high school had a ceremony to inaugurate the water system funded by my friend Bill Winkley’s charity One Family International. Since I was responsible for initiating the project, I was also the guest of honor. The entire school of 1600 students were lined up on the campus with officials from several government offices sitting on the dias with us. The girls’s choir had created a song, praising my generosity and the principal, Patrick Muluh, presented me with a traditional dress representing the Kom people. I can rarely walk down the street in town without my name being called out and someone rushing over to greet me. Based in this village for six weeks is a challenge. I have no refrigerator so I am limited as to what I can buy, cook and store. Last year there was only one store with any refrigeration in the village. All they had was a freezer filled with frozen fish, names and dates unknown. I was so excited this year when I was told that a small shop had a standup refrigerator, selling yogurt and cold drinks. I doubt if anyone here knows what an ice cube is. Thinking ahead this year, I brought a bunch of ziplock bags. Without a refrigerator, I have to vacuum seal all my food against a large variety of bugs. The only decent shopping is in Bamenda, a large town two hours away. I read labels to see where and when the food was packaged, preferring imports to “made in Cameroon”. The bread, cookies and pasta made here are awful, probably because they use flour, water and palm oil. The produce market in Bamenda is also far superior to Fundong. When mentioned it to a young engineer student the other day, he said the soil in this area is not very good and the small farmers have no money for fertilizer. We have been trying to encourage the villages around Fundong to start making compost to improve the soil.
Dealing with the water crisis here in town is another challenge. The communal taps had been shut by the mayor recently because his council had inherited a previous water bill from the last administration and was trying to catch up. The water is Fundong can never be owned by the community because the rights to the water in town are owned by a private company called Snake. As I found out today, the government privatized the water in the country in 1999. It was sold to a French company and now has been resold to an Egyptian company. So unless an individual can pay for his own water, or the council will pay for the city taps, so many families in town are going to the dirty streams for water.
Today I visited the mayor with Patrick the principal of the high school. We subtlely offered Patrick’s help in negotiating a deal with Snake so the water could be turned on a few hours a day.
The biggest and also embarrassing joke in this country is AES, the American corporation in control of the country’s electric grid. They bought the electric supply from the Cameroonian government in 2004 and things have never been the same.. The electric goes out at least five times a day.. Last week it was off for 7 hours one night. Yesterday the power was off from 1pm until 9 pm. I had my dinner by flashlight.

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