SLSCA president LueRachelle Brim-Atkins shares her trip blog, a day-by-day chronicle of citizen diplomacy for 12 delegates
Monday 8 January
Everyone was at SeaTac excited and ready to go on this adventure to Cameroon. Thanks to our friend and guardian angel, Noah, Air France had confirmed our baggage fee waivers for all bags and Delta Airlines had assigned an agent to meet us to check all 43 bags. We were thrilled that the Sky Cap who had helped us last year was on duty this year and remembered us, probably because after handling 45 bags last year, we had forgotten to tip him until we cleared SeaTac security! We rectified that for last year and tipped him for this time!
Tara, a delegate from last year, showed up with lavender & peppermint essential oil kits that she made especially for us as well as handmade jewelry for us to give as gifts to the people we met in Cameroon. What a joy to see her!
We sat at the gate on the plane for 2 hours in Seattle, thereby missing our connecting flight in Paris! We had decided ahead of time that everything would be part of the adventure of travel so we headed for the Air France (AF) desk to be rerouted to Cameroon. After 2 hours being switched between 3 customer service representatives at the AF desk, being ignored, failing to inform us of what was going on, deciding to put us on a flight to Istanbul only to discover that we no longer had enough time to catch that flight, we were put on a flight to CASABLANCA—yes, the land of Humphry Bogart & Ingrid Bergman. Our joke was that we’re planning a trip to Morocco & Spain in 2019 but had not planned to make it part of this trip! The gate attendant insisted upon checking the carryon luggage for Smyrna & me at the door of the plane but didn’t inform us that it would then be handled as checked baggage all the way to Cameroon. Now we know.
We arrived in Casablanca and after an exhausting trip through the Moroccan airport in search of Smyrna’s and my missing luggage, we soon learned that the signage is non-existent and the human directions even less. We finally found our gate. The good news was that Corrie & Liana who were joining us from Chicago had had their flight cancelled in NYC and had also been rerouted—to CASABLANCA! There they were sitting at the gate! We entered Cameroon together. It was going to be a blessed and magical trip!
Wednesday January 10—Yaoundé
Yep, we lost our longed-for and scheduled day of R&R as we circled the globe in various metal tubes (AKA planes)! After a brief stop in Douala to drop off passengers, we arrived at 4:30am a day later than planned rather than our intended 6:30pm the night before. The expression “rode hard and put away wet” comes to mind. But our ever-faithful Ekeni and her staff were ready and waiting for us (we’d kept them informed by text message from the plane). They were attired in white tee shirts that read “Welcome to Cameroon Seattle Limbe Sister City Association—Enjoy your stay” and Limbe Municipal Engineer Jean who had visited us this year was there to greet us! All luggage arrived except for Corrie’s & Liana’s but they had come prepared (actually read our Travel Manual that said bring extra clothing just in case…).
We drove to Hotel Liza, dropped into bed around 6am—everyone except Alfreda who realized that she was so busy helping count bags with feminine care kits at the airport that she left her own bag there. Ekeni retrieved it while we slept and we got up around 2pm to go on a brief tour of the City of Yaoundé and visit the Cultural Arts Center and to find the monastery where we THOUGHT we were staying on our first trip. But that’s another funny story for another time! At the Arts Center, the shopping began!
Back at our hotel we dressed for dinner and headed to see two of our favorite citizens of Yaoundé—Mr & Mrs. Nana who we fondly call “Mama and Papa Sandrine”—parents of our friend and co-conspirator with the Seattle Limbe Sewing Circle, Sandrine Wandji. What a fabulous dinner served on the veranda of their fabulous home! We had great conversations about girls’ empowerment with her son, Narcisse, who teaches classes on the topic. Dinner was fabulous and champagne was flowing. Such lovely people they are and they always welcome us to Cameroon. They have already put their bids in for some of our time in 2020.
Thursday January 11-12—Village of Sakbayeme
An early morning breakfast at Hotel Liza was followed by a drive to Pouma with our friend, Dr. Helene Yinda, president of the YWCA of Cameroon. Our 2ndtime training women at the YWCA, Helene decided to “decentralize the training” and have women in her rural village trained to create kits. While the Seattle delegates had prepared our portion of the training, we prepped for the integration of the African American history with Corrie & Liana (Chicago) and Carlene (Portland, OR) on the bus. 17-year old Liana had written an amazing poem for the girls and it would be translated into French. We were all eager to get started.
But first, protocol requires that we greet the Government District Officer to advise him of our presence in his area. He welcomed us, took the requisite picture on the steps of the Government office as he proudly wore the cap that we had presented to him as a gift. We had our first training to 3 groups of girls on African American history and the use and care of the feminine care kits. It was fabulous!
The village school was our first embracing of outdoor toileting experience on this trip. We were accompanied on our bus by two unarmed security officers, all in the name of hospitality, protocol and full employment (AKA tips accepted/expected). And Mo was able to practice counting to 4 in French after she missed a step dismounting the bus. Now Ekeni’s support team reminds her each time, “Mama, there are 4 steps, not 3—un, deux, trois, quatre.”
We were staying at La Baie des Anges Hotel—one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in anywhere and it was in the village of Pouma. Who knew? We returned to our hotel for lunch, then headed for Sakbayeme, our friend and colleague’s village “not too far” from Yaoundé. We were greeted by vllage elders in a receiving line and by villagers. We were happy to see that they have built cross-cultural community as the Presbyterians and the Muslims were there to greet us, eat and dance. We had 2 fabulous days of interacting with the women of the village who eagerly set about learning not only how to create kits but several were simultaneously learning how to sew! Our master trainers went to work and Corrie put down the babies she automatically gravitates to and set about organizing the inventory we’d leave with the women to continue creating the kits.
We were inspired that the women already know each other and they were excited to learn how to create the kits. The machines that we used in Yaoundé last year were waiting for us in Sakbayeme though Mary needed a tiny Allen wrench to repair their serger and they didn’t have one. Lighting in the room was dim even in the daytime so we need to bring lamps for next time. They did bring in head lamps that clip onto the head and that helped some. They had the largest scissors we had ever seen (they looked like hedge clippers) so scissors (or more specific instructions to them from me) will benefit our next training in country. Since the area is Francophone the translators who traveled with us were invaluable. We need to be sure all written instructions are in English and French.
In the afternoon after our first day of training, we drove to the village church and met the minister, drove by what had been a huge hospital complex at one time where Dr. Yinda’s father had worked as a physician. Unfortunately, only one building is used currently. We then met with the villagers at the beautiful home Dr. Yinda is building in her village. We returned to our hotel where SLSCA Delegate Chef Deb Burton sent the guys into the village for supplies and prepared a scrumptious dinner for us in the hotel kitchen. Not every group travels with their own personal chef!
Over dinner, we were on the lookout for natural leaders to supervise each of the functions (making shields, pads, bags, etc.) after we left. One faux pas we made was to assign the people we identified. Helene is much more familiar with the nuances of village life and graciously corrected that. Turns out that one of our “leaders” would have caused turmoil with the project in the village because she is Helene’s sister and that would have been seen as favoritism (and she is a bit on the bossy side). Lesson learned.
After our day of training the women to create kits, they had prepared food for us. Unfortunately, we had to take the food to go because we needed to get off the roads before dark. Not good decorum but we hoped they understood. All that being said, we had two AMAZING days training the women and we look forward to hearing reports of their success. Thrilled with our first 2 days of work, we drove back to our hotel in Yaoundé.
Sunday 14 January
We went with our YWCA host, Dr. Yinda, to her Presbyterian church where they had reserved seating for us and welcomed us from the pulpit. We were asked to make remarks and to sing. We told them why we had come to Cameroon (all being translated), gave them a little of our history as African Americans, told the history of the song “Amazing Grace” then sang it. It was a very emotional time for us! We danced with them during the service and they gifted us with beautiful carvings at the end of the 4-hour service, during which time some of us struggled not to be obvious that we were taking prolonged naps. Dark glasses helped we hope! JET LAG!
We were then invited to a parishioner’s BEAUTIFUL home for dinner with the ministers and some of the church officers and that was fabulous! The dinner was elegant and we felt most welcome. We sing our Sewing Circle lunch grace song before our meals and one of the women translated it for us in the local language. Our conversations were around African American history and girls empowerment. We recognized some of the songs they were singing and one was “Siyahama” which one of our choirs at FAME has sung. We sang together. Of course we showed them a kit and they were very excited about what we are doing. There were two young girls at dinner and we gave each one a kit along with a tutorial on how to use it. The girls were shy at first but at the end of our impromptu training in the living room, they were generous with their hugs and wanted to keep our Liana with them.
Monday 15 January
We celebrated Dr. King’s birthday at two schools. The first was Groupe Scholaire Bilingual Mewoulou School where we were greeted by the most beautiful pre-schoolers in their little school smocks. The older children greeted us with dancing on the stage where we had seen them last time. We conducted our training and distributed kits to 149 girls, so many some of us walked on desk tops to distribute kits(pictures on the website). We talked with girls who had received kits last year and they told us that they are using the kits and some had shared them with their mom or sisters. There are 1,200 girls at the school so again, we made only a minor dent as they referred the neediest girls to us again.
We were thrilled that our friend, Alain Kenfack, met us there. We had not seen him since he & Lisa Aubrey visited us in Seattle for the Bimbia exhibit and it was so good to see him and introduce him to the new delegates. We were ravenous as we had not had lunch and it was 3:30pm. He invited us to his sister’s home for “snacks” which of course was a full meal. He and his sisters were visiting Cameroon from France and prepared the meal for us of best tasting cabbage, beef, pork, chicken, salad and on such short notice. We were once again overwhelmed by Cameroonian hospitality.
After staying to visit at Alain’s sister’s home, we went to dinner at Ekeni’s uncle’s home. He is Minister Delegate in Charge of Relations with the Commonwealth, Dr. Joseph Dionnguite and his job is to negotiate boundary disputes, etc. He is often negotiating at the UN. He had a professional classically trained pianist entertain us on his baby grand piano and a professional chef prepared a dinner for us. His friend, Dr. Judith Ndongo Torimiro, who is a genetics professor at the local medical school also spent the evening with us. We invited them to visit us in Seattle and they promised they will come.
Tuesday, 16 January
Leaving Yaoundé we stopped at a bakery where we bought breakfast provision. To show you how much fun this group was, these these women danced at the entrance to the bakery as we waited for our bus to return from a brief repair. We were asked to step aside so that people could enter the business! They must have thought, “Crazy Americans!”
Fernando was one of our crew. He and his invited us visit her village school in Bandrefam to take kits. We picked her up and she rode the bus with us to the village. We drove through very narrow roads directly through their market on market day! As in a Jason Bourne movie, we disrupted vendors who had to move their stalls so that we could get through. When we arrived, the school day was finished (early dismissal day) and only a few children remained at the school. Fernando’s wife told us not to worry and to prepare to train. Within minutes more girls appeared along with teachers and village women. Word of mouth traveled quickly and we soon had an ample supply of girls and women and a few men in the classroom. There were even pre-schoolers and babies who appeared. We then taught reproductive health, African American history and distributed kits to every girl and woman present. They thanked us profusely and Fernando’s wife was happy that she had made a difference in her village. We rode back through the market place. Mercifully the market was closing and disturbed no vendors and were on our way to our lovely village of Tockem to see our friend, the king Fo Nkemou. It was dark when we arrived so we ate dinner and retired to our lovely accommodations at Tockem Eco Lodge. Time to catch our collective breath!
Wednesday 17 January—Tokem Lodge
Alfreda woke up singing, “He is Worthy to be Praised” because the shower water was hot. It’s the little things in life that count! We DRUG ourselves out of bed to get ready for a day of training. Our first visit was to Garden Notre Lycee in Tokem where we conducted training in two groups for the first time (had done 3 groups in earlier sessions and the history portion was rotated). We distributed 150 kits to girls and teachers.
We then trained at the CES Bilingue de Bafou School where we had gone to last year and the science teacher accompanied us. School ended at 1pm and we were late arriving but we still trained and distributed 130 kits to girls and teachers. On our way back to the lodge 3 students asked if they could ride back to the lodge with us as they lived nearby. The 3 quickly became 12 as they happily joined us on the bus. We had a guided tour of the grounds of the eco lodge, saw the king’s house and the house of two of his wives (wife number 1 lives in the house with him), the grounds, the auditorium, the amazing mushroom houses and lodges. Some of the kids who had been on the bus with us waved excitedly as they worked their gardens after a day of school. The Eco lodge is an amazing place and the king has done a marvelous job of taking care of his people.
We dressed for dinner because we were dining with the king (Fo Nkemvou, M.D.) and his wife, Ma Fo Jeanne Nkemvou. They both live in Maryland where he is a medical consultant and travels the world. We had a great conversation with him about the challenges of finding suitable locations to teach women to create the kits. He was very forthcoming and understood the challenges. He then told us about his sister who has built a school for girls who live in poverty. He encouraged us to visit the school the next day in Mbouda, near Dschang—Centre de Formation Professionnelle des Infants de l’Espoir de Mbouda. We presented towels for the lodge that we had bought and Claire had appliqued with a picture of the village gate (from the internet) and the words “Seattle to Tockem.” Last time we were there, each room had one towel but two guests. We thought we could help remedy that. We also gave the lodge solar lights for the pathway to the rooms down below the main building. The Fo was happy to receive them on behalf of the lodge.
Thursday 17 January
We began the day with an unscheduled stop at the king’s sister’s school which was perfect for teaching women and girls how to create kits. She has girls who she is already teaching them hygiene, health care, sewing, and catering. She is factory-ready as the school is well-equipped with machines, sergers and the biggest spools of thread we had ever seen! The girls were making their uniforms for an upcoming festival. We saw pictures of dresses they had made for a wedding. They have a small gift shop that sells things they made and we did our best to support the girls with a little shopping in it.
She told us that she would come to greet us at the Eco Lodge in the evening. We told her that we’d teach her how to demonstrate the kits to the girls and brief her on the reproductive health training.
We left the school on our way to Foumban and had a beside the bus toileting experience, replete with a SeaHawks blanket sheltering us from the passing cars. Little did we know that the women on the bus were taking pictures of our squatting experience! No, you may not see the pictures and they most certainly are no on the website!
At Foumban, we went to an artists village where we saw bronze statue making, a man making shoes out of tires, women creating beautiful dresses and jewelry. They danced with us and showed us the initiation room where they initiated LueRachelle as the leader of our group. Down below we could the school that the current Sultan attended. We visited the museum and contributed to the economy with our purchases. We passed the new spider shaped museum which we were told should be open in March. We are hoping to have our friend’s Delbert’s exhibit there in 2020. Mary’s friend, Sidiki Aboubakar Kouotou, is related to the director and promises to put us in touch.
We returned to the lodge and met Elvin, a Communications social media intern from France at the lodge. He interviewed us and wrote an article about our work for the Lodge’s Facebook page. His English was at about the same level as our French and we decided to refer him to our website instead.
The sewing teacher came with the king’s sister to visit us in the evening as promised.
We trained them on the use and care of the kits. The two of them not only listened to Mary’s instructions on the kits but practiced instructing the girls and did a beautiful job! We gave them 150 kits for girls, their moms and sisters, insisting that all be trained before distributing them. They assured us they would and have already sent pictures of their training in the school’s courtyard. Time well spent and further evidence of how magical the trip was.
Friday 18 January
We arose early for breakfast and to say our goodbyes to the Fo (King) and Ma Fo (Queen). Lots of pictures, lots of hugs as they promised to visit us in the spring in Seattle. We bade a fond farewell to our beloved Tokem Lodge.
After a very long bus ride, we stopped for a delicious lunch at the hotel in Koutara where we had stopped last time. We were stopped at several police check points where Ekeni always held forth. She is fearless with her government badge and sharp tongue. We were on our way to Ekom-Nkam waterfall but she and Eric, our luggage van driver, sent us on to the waterfall while they stayed behind to convince the police of whatever (and that she was not going to pay a “dash”). One police officer intimated that she should pay him to let us pass but another officer told him, “You have a job. You get paid a salary. Stop asking for a bribe!” Ekeni told us later that she threatened to call her boss the Government Delegate to let him talk with the police officers to straighten things out. They had not wanted that so they let her go on her way. She found us at the waterfall with her usual, “Ladies, all is well. Let us go.”
We headed for Buea to shop for fabric. As it was dusk, we noticed thousands upon thousands of bats flying en masse in the sky. It was an amazing site. We arrived in Buea and shopped for fabric. We didn’t find 8-10 6-yard pieces to make our group’s dresses for the next trip. Had to do more shopping! Delayed by the police stops, we finally arrived in Limbe after dark, had a lovely dinner at Musango Beach Hotel and headed for bed.
Saturday 19 January
Today was allegedly a day of leisure. We had a late breakfast at the hotel, got on the bus and went in search of fabric again. Women’s groups there attire themselves in outfits of matching fabrics and different designs. We chose to do that this time and sought matching fabric for next year. Because again we could not find multiple pieces of the same fabric, we decided upon coordinating fabrics of burgundy/black/gold. Should be pretty. The textile treasure hunt is great fun, at least for some of us.
We ate gumbas (huge shrimp) at the beach then came back to the hotel where Ekeni’s mom, sister and cousin brought a beautiful dinner for us. We gave Mama Ekeni gifts and spent some time describing our wonderful experiences with her amazing daughter and telling her how much we loved her husband, Mr. Meombo who had passed away the month before we arrived after struggling with lukemia.
Sunday 20 January
Today was our Pilgrimage to Bimbia—the enslavement site near Limbe where the ancestors were taken away by the thousands. It’s only one of several enslavement sites in Cameroon. The exact number of sites is unknown because the Cameroonians have been in denial that ancestors were taken away. Some Africans had played a part in selling the ancestors to the Europeans, whether to gain money, to gain favor or trinkets or because they and their families were threatened if they did not. There was a little of all those things in our history. The Europeans didn’t want to admit what they had done to us and they were writing the history books for African schools.
Thanks to the work of sister, Fullbright scholar and 3-year resident in Cameroon Dr. Lisa Aubrey, the truth is finally being told. She has done amazing research into the “slave trade” and has documented that more than 200 ships left Cameroon alone. Bimbia is now a pilgrimage destination and the young people are beginning to learn the history. We plan to extend that learning when we return in 2020, inshallah.
What an emotional day! We walked the 1.5 miles to the sea, passing vestiges of buildings where the ancestors were held captive, a trough where ancestors were chained to be fed and watered like animals, the branding station, the slave runner’s quarters where he looked out to spot approaching ships and where he pointed below to which woman he wanted brought up to his chamber for him to rape. We walked through the first and second “doors of no return” then held ceremony at the water’s edge. Carlene and her husband had both traced their DNA to Cameroon—Eugene to the Bamileke people and Carlene to the Tikar’s. They had both wanted to come to Cameroon but Eugene passed away 4 years to the day that we left for Cameroon on this trip. She had brought some of his ashes and honored each of us by allowing us to say some words to honor him, tell him “Welcome home” and deposit the ashes in the sea. He is finally home.
Ekeni’s dad, Mr. Meombo, had been with Dr. Lisa Aubrey when they introduced us to Bimbia 3 years ago. He had told us some of the history. Last year when we had come, he met us in Limbe and brought bottles of wine for us to drink at the beach. The weather and the beach were both warm but we were honored that he thought of us. He hugged, talked, laughed, teased and welcomed us back. Who would have known that by the time we returned in one year’s time, he would be gone. We missed being with him and paid homage to him at the water’s edge as well. Liana had written a beautiful poem to honor the two men and read it through all of our tears.
Back in Bimbia, we had a fabulous lunch that Ekeni had catered for us at the waterfront and loitered looking out at the sea. We had great fun shopping at the small market place at the beach and went back to the hotel after dark. It was then that we realize we were hungry again and our Chef Deborah Burton got out of bed and prepared spaghetti and gambas (shrimp) even though she wasn’t feeling well. Such a “ride or die” group of women these are!
Monday January 22
It’s day 15 in Cameroon and we had a full schedule in our Sister City! We met with the Rotary Club to talk about collaborating with us to fund the digging of the bore holes (water wells) at the two Government High Schools. The meeting went well and they were clear that they need a feasibility study funded by the Municipality of Limbe before they will sign off on the paperwork. Though we began talking with the City officials about the bore holes two years ago, surprisingly, the City engineer had met with Rotary official only one week prior to our visit, proving once more that if we are going to do this kind of project, one of us needs to be on the ground in Cameroon to see that it happens. Things move more slowly than we’d like and the children need water at the schools now.
After our meeting we went to our 7thschool, a high school in a high poverty area of Limbe. They were ready for us though organizing the girls at any of the schools is difficult because the smaller schools don’t have an auditorium and we don’t have enough trainers to go to all the classrooms at once. It took a minute for them to combine some classes. We had to make the decision that after the nurse and the counselor sat in on our training sessions, they would complete the training and kit distribution after we left. Both the nurse and the counselor were enthusiastic participants in our training. The PTA moms were present in the walkways and were very excited about what we were doing. We’d like to return to find out in what other ways we could assist the school.
The Government Delegate and Ekeni had arranged for us to meet with the Principal at the Government Bilingual High School to talk about the proposed bore hole there. They have one but it is not a sufficient water supply year-round, particularly in the dry season. She was very excited about the possibility of our securing a second one. We then checked in with the Principal at the other school to discuss the borehole project.
Finally it was time for our meeting with the Government Delegate who appeared happy to see us once again. We talked about the bore hole projects but not about the feminine care kits project since he is not particularly interested in talking about that. We discussed our meeting with the Rotary leaders and left it in his hands to talk about how they will handle the funding of the feasibility study.
We told him that we will return again in 2020 and he seemed genuinely disappointed that we will miss 2019. We told him of our plans to bring Delbert Richardson’ Traveling African American Museum and the work of some of our African American Seattle artists. He got very excited about that and asked that we come in April rather than January so that we could hold the exhibit as part of FESTAC—their city cultural festival. When I said that I thought FESTAC was a party opportunity and people would be too distracted to come to see the exhibit, he clarified that it is a cultural fair and he would assign one full day just for us and our exhibit! In that way, everyone’s attention will be directed to us for that day. Conceivably, we could keep the exhibit up for 2-3 days after our Grand Opening day. Schools will be closed for FESTAC so we might be able to open the exhibit on a Friday to ensure that students come. Lot of planning and coordination!! We’ve already begun!
The Delegate hosted us for a formal dinner in the evening at the Pride (Elephant) Restaurant and invited the Rotary leaders. We had given him several gifts (smoked salmon, a calendar and a Seattle Sounders cap). The cap was a big hit and he even wore it to the dinner! His boss came as well and we sat at the head table. When the Government Delegate told him we had given him the hat, his boss said, “That’s a very nice hat. Yes, a very nice hat.” I took the hint and sent one of our delegates to get a hat for him from the bus. He was very pleased and immediately put it on.
It was another good day and our Sister City business with the Delegate went well.
Tuesday, January 23
We took our bus early in the morning to Douala and registered at Hotel Belavie. We then left to visit our host, Angel (pronounced An-hel) who was taking us to Jabele Island, a canoe ride from Douala. While we were not looking forward to a dip in the water, we were grateful for the vests that she issued when we stepped into the leaky canoes! The island is inhabited primarily by elders and she is trying to preserve the Douala culture by working with young people to do so. A group of beautiful young men came to the island to entertain us with drumming, singing, games. Smyrna was the perfect person to be chosen as the person to take a drumming lesson (video on the website) and she loved it! We danced, played instruments and had a grand time!
When it became apparent that I needed a nap rather than a walking tour of the village, suddenly an overstuffed armchair appeared with a footstool and one of the elders and I had a lovely time listening to the continuous drumming until I nodded off to sleep. It was so wonderfully peaceful.
When the delegates returned from their tour with tales of an old church built by the Presbyterians, we were ushered to a beautiful feast of fish, plantains, the ever-present cassava and greens. That was some of the best fish we had devoured in Cameroon—fresh from the ocean and excellently prepared. A huge locust jumped on Alfreda’s dress and she calmly removed it and went about her business.
Back to the mainland in our leaky canoes, we were happy and satiated. We returned to our hotel and rested for a bit because Angel had invited us to dinner. We had no idea what surprises awaited us! We rode our bus on a very bumpy road to a barricade in the middle of the road. We then disembarked to be ferried by car in two groups to her husband, Joelle’s magnificent Artists Residence/Studio/Gallery/Boutique that is being built right on the water. The power had gone out in the area but they were grilling the best gambas, fish and chicken for us so that didn’t matter. We ate outside with the stars shining brilliantly and the sand beneath our feet and the sound of the water lapping the shore. What more could we ask for. Suddenly the power was restored and we could see the magnificent building and the surround sound of American jazz washed over us from a fabulous sound system! We toured the building with its huge artists’ studio where artists will come from all over the world to live in the 6 bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. There are also gallery and boutique spaces. While the rooms are for artists, we asked if we could stay there when we come to Douala in 2020. He assured us that the rooms are “also for people who love art and who doesn’t love art?”
It was the end to another perfect day.
Wednesday January 24
Day 17 was Ekeni’s birthday so we ordered a cake and sang Happy Birthday to her in the White House Restaurant where we had lunch. Though exhausted, we had our 4thdebrief in the lobby of Hotel Belavie as it is important to talk about what works and what could be different for next time. A young man who had sold some of the delegates “We Love Cameroon” shirts of his own creation earlier in the day found us and brought the shirts to those of us who had not purchased shirts from him. We love supporting young entrepreneurs and we made him happy.
Mary’s friend met us at the hotel with huge bags of things to sell. We had met him in Kribi last year as he was the manager of a group of very aggressive salesmen at our hotel there. We had told them that they would sell more if they were not so aggressive and I had coached them on what worked—all of this in English being translated to French. It worked as they allowed space for the delegates to consider their potential purchases.
Since we weren’t going to Kribi on this trip, Mary’s frend came to us in Douala. He rode the bus with us for the remainder of the trip. Such a delightful young man. The aunties had to have “the talk” with him on the bus about our Mary. We assured him that if he did not have honorable intentions toward her, we could come for him! I said all of this in English and our translator was brilliantly funny in her translations. After “the talk”, I asked if he had any questions and he grinned and assured us, “Oh no no no!” (see the video on the website).
Thursday, January 25
We had breakfast in the beautiful restaurant at the Hotel Belavie on this our 18thday in Cameroon. We won’t stay at this hotel again because it had too many issues and we want to stay at Joelle and Angel’s place but the breakfast here was good. We were excited to do our final shopping in the Douala wholesale district where we could practice our ever-increasing negotiation skills with the oh-so-aggressive sales people. We had been here on our two previous trips and looked forward to introducing it to the first-time delegates who had shopping on their minds.
We waited on the bus in bustling downtown Douala for the wholesale fabric store to open for the afternoon (not sure what that was about). The fabric selections were disappointing and no less expensive than ones we had found in the small fabric stores and stalls that we had frequented. No need to return there next time. We’ll stick with the small business merchants.
Ekeni had been scouring the city for a different restaurant than the White House. Cameroon has very rich volcanic soil and grows wonderful fruits and vegetables. We saw little evidence that there is a lot of importation of foods from elsewhere and good for them! However, one of the drawbacks to travel in Cameroon is that we get pretty much the same foods at every restaurant and we were looking for a little variety. We had tried a Chinese restaurant last time and the food was terrible! Even Chinese people were not eating there and that should have been our first indication of our fate. Ekeni found Foire de Marine which is a hotel with a restaurant and the food was excellent. We ate, talked and laughed for hours and then it was time to take the bus to the airport and say goodbye to Ekeni and her crew. Parting is indeed such sweet sorrow but we had had a beautiful time in Cameroon and look forward to our 2020 visit.
When we arrived at the airport, we called each of the crew to the back of the bus where we presented them with gifts. We put everything in tote bags that Claire had embroidered with Seattle Limbe Sister City Association on them. Gifts included their tip, tokens we had brought from the states, bracelets for their mothers, wives or girlfriends that Tara—a delegate from last year—had made for them. They were overjoyed. Good decision on my part to include tips in the fees so that delegates would not have to worry about holding money back for tips. The worry was on me to be sure there was sufficient money left over for tips after hotels, meals, surprises that added to the budget, etc.
Our guys then took everything from the bus and loaded them onto trolleys. We entered the mayhem that is the Douala International Airport with its “Do you want our bags wrapped in Saran Wrap for a fee?” and no air conditioning as we stood in the wrong line praying that our oversized packages would be checked without our having to pay for additional baggage, followed by 4 security checks. Lucrece, our interpreter, introduced us to her lovely mother who works at the airport. One of our delegates was stopped by a security person and was escorted to some office that was outside the terminal. We still have no idea what that was about but Lucrece’s mom was there to straighten it all out and we were on our way through the remaining security check points. Ekeni with her government badge was allowed to go with us through until the final security check point. We hugged her good-bye and told her that we knew she’d need a vacation after herding us around for 2 ½ weeks!
We had an on-time departure for Paris. Corrie and her daughter Liana had flight delays in Paris and in Amsterdam on their way back to Chicago but everyone arrived home safely. We thank God for safe travels and we thank First African Methodist Episcopal Church, Congregation Beth Shalom and Congregation Baitul Ehasaan who provide sponsorship and space for our work on behalf of the girls in Cameroon. We are grateful to our families, friends, participants in the Sewing Circles, well-wishers and donors. This was a blessed (some would say magical) trip where spiritual and physical angels watched over us every mile of the way. We are so grateful. We look forward to 2020, inshallah.
· We spent 19 full days on the trip, with 2 days travel to Cameroon and back.
· We had 15 working days with 7 school visits (Pouma, Yaoundé primary, Yaoundé HS, Bandrefam village, Tockem H.S., Tockem Middle School, and the school in Limbe).
· We had 4 impromptu trainings (the living room following the luncheon after church, with Bus Driver George who took kits to his daughters and wife & on the bus with soon-to-be-married Silas who promised to train his fiance, and at Tockem with the King’s sister and the sewing teacher who taught girls and their moms how to use the kits once we left).
· We conducted a 2-day training to create kits with the YWCA in Sakbayémé village.
· We developed 2 opportunities to create sustainability for kit creation through YWCA Sakbayémé this year and in Mbouda with the king’s sister in 2020.
· We have potential opportunities for 2020 with the African American History Museum/ African American artists’ exhibit in the Limbe Art Center as part of FESTAC and possibly again at the Foumban Museum.
· We also have the potential of engaging with Narcisse Nana’s women’s empowerment group in Yaounde in 2020.
What a glorious trip. To quote lyrics from the musical Wicked, We “may not have been changed for the better but (we) have been changed for good.”