Today I am sharing an account of a few days in a two week trip to Cameroon, W Africa a few years ago. This part was the fulfillment of a childhood dream to be a missionary nurse in Africa, if only for a couple of days!
Africa……..the dark continent, so they say. I had little idea what to expect as the plane neared our destination. The sight of the seemingly endless Sahara Desert from the air, the sand beautifully patterned from the wind, was truly awesome in its expanse. Our Swissair flight took us from a memorable 2-day rest in Paris, via Zurich and Malabo, Equatorial Guinea to the large coastal city of Douala in Cameroon, W Africa. Our purpose was to spend two weeks encouraging and counseling the amazing people who were serving as missionaries there. Flying in at night we began to see differences already as the country was almost completely dark until we got near the airport.
Arrival by plane into a third world country is always an experience in flexibility. Hot and tired from the 10-hour flight, we meandered down long open-air ramps leading to the luggage area, feeling very white, and showing our papers about a dozen times. If we hadn’t had proof of yellow fever immunization, there were people prepared to shoot us up on the spot for a price. The luggage area was a veritable sea of humanity, with porters in numbered shirts climbing all over the carousels to rescue their patrons’ bags. It looked chaotic, but seemed to function pretty well!
Finally in the van, luggage all safely arrived by a very prayed for miracle, we sat in the parking lot for an hour while the traffic jam loosened up, then overnighted at a local guest house since travel at night is apparently an invitation to bandits. (BANDITS???? Nobody said anything about bandits……. sounds like the wild west!) Douala is a city of 2 1/2 million with virtually no traffic lights. Every intersection is a free-for-all. Most vehicles are taxis, which appear even from the outside to be crammed full of people. Apparently, the joke goes,” How many people fit into a Cameroonian taxi?” The answer: “One more!”
The next day was our first of many long car trips to various parts of Anglophone (English-speaking) Cameroon. We were 6 hours en route to Bamenda, stopping for memorable “fast food” about half way, in Kekum.
We ate some sort of very spicy meat,( I didn’t ask what) on a stick and plantains roasted over coals in a tin can, and local grapefruit flavored soda pop. No restroom being offered, I wandered down a pathway into the brush to make myself more comfortable. As we drove, I really was struck by how Cameroon is very much like you’d expect Africa to look: crowded with people in the villages, (all the women really do carry things on their heads, so ingenious), everything overgrown with vegetation between villages, dusty, smoky, with a very cheerful vibe.
After a few days in Bamenda, we traveled to Banso Baptist Hospital in Kumba, a mere 3 hours up the road. It’s probably not that far, but by now we were deep inside Cameroon, with roads mostly unpaved and deeply rutted from recent rains, so bumpy is an understatement. The many taxis and vans on the road were not only chock full of people, but had all sorts of things tied on the back and top, including quite a few goats, and even a large, resigned-looking pig.
For myself, I developed a technique for being a car passenger in Cameroon: you hang on to the strap above the door with one hand, brace both feet and the other hand, and try to relax everything in between. It’s better to just let your body go with the motion of the car. I decided to view it as a sort of chiropractic adjustment. The windows are always open to be sure to let in plenty of bright red dust and dirt, and I finally learned to tie my hair up with a scarf to avoid having it caked in red dust. There are no seat belts, so faith is regularly exercised. We were frequently stopped in the villages by various folks with ropes held across the road, who exchanged vehement words with our driver. We were not informed what was going on, probably all for the best. However, it was a great opportunity for the villagers to thrust through the open windows all sorts of things they wanted us to buy. The bags of fruit I didn’t mind, but the dead monkey and python were a bit much.
At Kumbo we stayed with Pokey and Laurel Cleek, a surgeon and RN working to train Cameroonians in surgery. In their spare time, the Cleeks love to go out to remote villages and show the Jesus film in the local language, Lamso. Soon after we arrived at their place, we were invited to join them on one of these adventures. Nine of us piled into their Land Rover, including a Cameroonian pastor who preached after the film. The village was high and deep in the mountains, and as the movie and preaching went on for several hours, it got truly freezing cold. This lady missionary in a cotton skirt and light jacket had chattering teeth; sure didn’t think that would happen in Africa! Fortunately, they had brought out chairs for the pathetically weak white folks, while around 200 villagers stood and watched the film projected on an outside wall. Even with the cold, I had a hard time not falling asleep since it’s tough to pay attention in Lamso! I was praying silently, but that seemed to worsen the soporific effect. Afterward, when I got my teeth under control I had the privilege to pray with several people who knew a little English.
Back in Kumbo, we talked with the Cleeks till nearly 1 am, then got up early for me to go to the hospital with Pokey. He’s helping me get my refresher course requirements for re- licensure as an RN, so I finally get to live out my dream of being a missionary nurse in Africa, even if only for two days!! I went on rounds in the wards with Pokey, and then to a C-section delivery where Steve joined us and Pokey insisted we sing “Happy Birthday” to the new baby. I was hoping the mother was drugged enough not to realize what we were up to!
After lunch I walked down the stairs lined in lovely tall poinsettias and crossed the street to visit the newly delivered mom. The baby was just waking, and I got to help the mom to breastfeed for the first time. It was gratifying to use some of the skills I’ve recently learned in my lactation course. I worked in the hospital the next day too, observing a couple more surgeries, and even administering the anesthesia in one. These days were truly a highlight of the trip for me. I loved getting to know the people, and seeing how inventively everything was done. Being in scrubs and a lab coat with a white face, I pretty much had carte blanche and quickly got comfortable cruising around the hospital by myself. The family members of the patients were spread out everywhere on lawns and benches around the hospital and were welcoming and friendly to me. I soon learned to greet them with something like a two-handed wave. The staff at the hospital were delightful, and very helpful to me.
Death comes often in a place like Cameroon, in spite of the wonderful care at the hospital. Several times during the days I was at the hospital, the cries and wailing of grief-stricken families would pierce the compound through the open windows. Their sorrow was unashamed and unselfconscious, so different from how we grieve in the West. It was always sudden, and really so painful to hear that I found myself tempted to turn my ears and mind away to escape from it. Instead, I tried to just listen and share for a minute the burden of their loss and to think of the moment of death expressed through a heartbroken voice.
Pokey and the other doctors and nurses filled out my required forms and got some fancy government stamps on them. After returning to the States, I sent everything off in the mail with a heartfelt prayer. To my joy, my short but rigorous refresher course in Africa was approved, and I was able to be licensed again! The memories of those few days of revisiting my calling as a medical professional in a setting so different from home will always be with me.