In the Summer of 2012, I embarked on a journey by myself that I knew would be life-changing, but I was not aware that I would be inspired, motivated and grateful to the extent that I am. I stayed in the northwest region of the Republic of Cameroon, in central west Africa, which is bilingual (lucky me) – French and English. I was living with the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame. They offered their home to me, as well as food, free-of-charge. A day or two after I arrived, I started to volunteer in Meluf Village, at St. Michael’s Catholic Formation Center, which helps orphaned and vulnerable children learn a trade within a three-year span, in hopes of them opening their own workshops to earn an income and become self-reliant. Most of these children are living with grandparents, aunts, uncles or a friend, due to their parents being deceased, or unable to provide as a result of extreme poverty of less than $1 a day. A couple gave up their home in 2006 so the Center could have a place to develop. However, the building is literally falling apart and the conditions were unimaginable for someone who had never left the United States before.
Yet the love, determination, courage, resilience, and hope that filled the air was truly inspiring, and an absolute privilege to be surrounded by.
The first day I arrived, I got out of the truck and stepped onto the orange dirt road. My ears were graced with the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. The children were lined up, with their ripped, mud-stained uniforms on, singing a welcome song for me. The corner of my eyes filled with tears as I was introduced by the director of St. Michael’s, Mr. Molo Julius. He informed the children and fellow staff that I was there to teach English, how to use computers (although they only had 3 computers which were running a version of Windows I had barely recognized, for a Center that receives almost 100 children on a daily basis), and help in whatever other ways I could. Their eyes lit up. Something that amazed me about these children was the fact that they always found a reason to smile in times and situations when I felt like crying.
Every Sunday, I went to visit the homes of these loving children, visiting about 10 homes each day. This is when I truly received a glimpse into the lives of these children. One of the most memorable moments was when I went into one small bedroom and two of the children said, “this is where we live.” I asked them how many people live there and they told me five. Can you possibly imagine five people living in one bedroom? Their mother is single and is doing all she possibly can for her children, but as the Cameroonians always say, “it’s not easy.” In addition, I never left empty handed when leaving a family compound.Most of the time, as soon as I walked in, I was warmly greeted and told to have a seat to have something to eat and drink. Every Sunday, I would come home with sacks of potatoes, oranges, and bananas. The Cameroonian people that I have had the honor and utter privilege of meeting and spending time with, are by far some of the most generous people I have ever encountered. It is remarkable how they truly looked after one another and placed great emphasis on the extended family. It was in Cameroon that I learned the value of community and interdependence which I was not used to due to the fact that American society strives towards being independent, able to take care of oneself. It was in Cameroon where I was treated like a daughter and sister, welcoming me as if, and convincing me I was, a part of their family.
I went to Cameroon to teach, but instead I was taught.
I learned many life lessons that have inspired and have motivated me beyond measure, to which I am forever grateful. An outlook I reminded myself to utilize while being in Cameroon is that I must regard every person I meet as my teacher; and that is exactly what I did. Whether it was a baby, a toddler, a teenager, an adult, an elderly person or someone that doesn’t speak a language that I understand, I could learn something from them. I came to the conclusion that, regardless of race, class, religion, sex, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or appearance, the concept of love is universal – it has no limits. It was the moment when I picked up a little girl and she fell asleep in my arms that I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be. The children of Kumbo are forever in my heart, and their smiles are engraved in my mind, until we meet again. Long live Cameroon, and long live Africa.
Warmest, Lauren K.