Mission to Cameroon: 21 projects in 21 days
The Roncalli International Foundation has a long and rich history of working with religious congregations and local organizations in the central African country of Cameroon. Over the years, it has funded hundreds of projects there, so when I had the opportunity to visit 21 projects in 21 days in the country this past summer, I only got a glimpse of the profound impact of the Foundation’s solidarity with the people of Cameroon. And what an impact it is!
I met with 14 partners of the Foundation while I was in Cameroon, who welcomed me with open arms and great warmth. Together, we visited many communities in the Centre region of the country, where projects funded by the Foundation have been implemented. This region is one of the most populated parts of the country, as it includes the capital city of Yaoundé, yet it also encompasses large swaths of rural areas that are dominated by small-scale farming activities. It suffers from many of the root causes of poverty, such as a lack of access to clean water, limited health care, few employment opportunities for youth and the marginalization of women.
The projects that I visited directly addressed these issues, often in small and isolated villages tucked away amongst forests and bush and far off from the main roads and cities. I often wondered how else these villages could improve their living conditions, were it not for the small projects that are funded by the Foundation?
Water everywhere, but none to drink
As we drove around the roads and villages of Cameroon, I couldn’t help but notice the lushness of the landscape. We drove through dense forests and next to fields brimming with corn stalks and mango trees. We frequently crossed rivers and streams, including the mighty Sanaga River. Despite this abundance of water, wherever we went we saw people travelling by foot or on motorbikes, dragging with them large containers to be filled with water. Clearly reaching clean water sources is no easy feat, and it is a laborious and time-consuming endeavour. Everyone I spoke with explained to me that water is the biggest challenge they face in their daily lives.
I visited 7 water projects during my visit, and in all cases, you could see the very direct improvement that these projects were having on people’s lives. As we arrived in communities, often the village chief, along with the water committee and other villagers, would greet me with elation, eager to show me the well and the ease with which they could pump clean water right into a bottle steps from their home.
As one village chief said to me, “It was with an immense joy that we received the news of the provision of a drinking water point in our village, because, as we all know, water gives us nutrients, it is essential for the proper functioning of the body, regulates our temperature and eliminates toxins, prevents drought and supports agriculture. In a nutshell, water is life!”
One project, done in collaboration with the organization Alternatives Durables pour le Développement (Sustainable Alternatives for Development), aimed to build wells in three isolated villages. Two of the villages now have boreholes with manual pumps that gush with water. In the third village, however, after many attempts by the expert technicians hired to dig the well, the water table was simply too deep to be able to install a pump. It was a disappointment for the villagers, who were now searching for another solution to bring water to their community. It showed just how it difficult it can be to make water accessible to all and the ongoing need to support and innovate in the water sector.
Answering multiple health needs
Another major challenge to the wellbeing of the population is accessing healthcare. With no social safety net in the country, public hospitals are few and far between, and often it is community-run clinics or health facilities run by religious congregations that fill the gap. These health facilities provide life-saving services, allowing children and adults to receive medical attention for simple cases, and be treated for illnesses, like malaria and cholera, which can turn deadly without medical care. The Foundation has supported many health projects in the country and I visited 6 projects that took place in health facilities that ranged from modern city hospitals to a country clinic surrounded by fields and forest.
This country clinic was situated in the village of Ibaïkak, which is located deep in the interior of the country, approximately 2 hours off the main highway and reached only after travelling along winding dirt roads that can easily get flooded during the rainy season. Trying to reach a clinic or hospital can be a long and costly journey, so many will forego seeking much-needed medical attention. The village chief wanted to change this situation and thanks to funding from the Roncalli Foundation, the community was able to rehabilitate a local building and transform it into a small bush clinic. The wooden structure has a pharmacy, a consulting room, and a room with two beds where patients can stay for observation or to recover after a minor procedure. The funding from the Foundation provided for the building materials and the basic equipment required to start the clinic. It is the community members themselves who put in the time and effort to renovate the space and make it bright and welcoming. The clinic is now staffed with a doctor who lives on site, and who can provide essential care to the villagers and those from surrounding communities as well.
In another instance, I visited a slightly larger health centre recently started by the Association Servantes de Jésus, a local religious congregation. Situated just off a busy and haphazard road juncture, where rapid urbanization is quickly transforming a rural area, the health centre must deal with cases specific to both realities.
That morning alone, the centre had seen 50 patients, mostly for the treatment of common illnesses and even the delivery of a baby. One of the young doctors who was still on duty after an overnight shift described how he had treated a woman for injuries caused by her partner. He said that cases of conjugal violence were becoming more frequent, as well as people injured in roadside accidents that happened off the increasingly busy highway. Nearly all of the furniture and equipment in the sparse facilities were provided by the Foundation. A sister who runs the pharmacy brimmed with pride to show me the well-stocked shelves. “I never thought we would be able to have a pharmacy, but thanks to the Foundation we do,” she gushed. The sisters said they started the clinic because they recognized the need, but with very few resources at their disposal, didn’t know how they would do it. “But we had a dream, and we put our faith in God,” said Marie Salomé, leader of the Congregation. That faith led them to Congrégation Notre-Dame, who supported the sisters in applying for funding from the Roncalli Foundation. Now the sisters hope to expand their services, so they can treat more complex cases, such as performing caesarean sections or treating certain chronic illnesses.
Giving youth a chance
Nearly half of Cameroon’s population is 18 and under, which makes for a bight and vibrant society. However, many young people face a situation of despair due to the lack of employment opportunities in the country. This is compounded by difficulties to make a decent living through sustenance farming or even with the cultivation of cash crops, such as cocoa. Many communities that I visited were very aggrieved by this situation, which often results in young people leaving to seek employment abroad.
Thankfully, the partners of the Roncalli Foundation are trying to change this situation and I visited 6 projects that are helping youth in the country create a better future for themselves and their country.
The Centre de Formation Agricole de Mbalmayo (CAPAM) offers young people trainings in organic farming techniques and encourages them to see the value in pursuing agriculture as a profession. The centre is located on four hectares of fertile land, where students learn how to improve the quality of crops, make herbal pesticides and raise livestock. The Foundation helped fund the installation of solar panels, which allows the centre to have a constant source of electricity. This also means that water is always accessible since the electric pump connected to the well is not affected by electrical cuts that are becoming increasingly frequent.
The organization is making many efforts to attract women to the sector, and wants to offer scholarships to young mothers so they do not have to abandon their studies. On the day I was visiting, the students were receiving their certificates of completion, a proud moment after a year of hard work. Their certification is recognized by the government, and can open doors for the students. One young woman full of energy told me about her hopes for the future: “Some say that agriculture does not make millionaires, and some really believe that. But I know that I can make it. I could be the first female farmer, who lives solely from farming and I rise and become a great business woman in the sector.”
Her aspirations provide hope that young women can rise above the discrimination they face, however, many are still confronted by barriers, especially when it comes to their education. Often parents do not have the funds to send their daughters beyond primary school or dot see the value in doing so. Sr. Madeleine-Gertrude of Soeurs de Saint-Paul de Chartres, a dynamic and driven woman, is determined to change this situation. She mobilized the community to help her transform an old dilapidated building into a residence for teenage girls so they can pursue their secondary studies. The residence, which is situated in proximity to an all-girls’ secondary school, can accommodate around 10 girls who can stay there for free. Over the years, the Foundation has supported 4 projects to help with furnishing and maintaining the residence. From the purchase of beds, tables and wardrobes to the digging of a well in the yard, these essentials were provided thanks to the funding from the Foundation. The most recent project was the installation of solar panels, which Sr. Madeleine Gertrude says has transformed the lives of the girls. She could barely contain her enthusiasm and gratitude as she explained that the girls could now study in the evening and live in greater security.
“Life at the residence has completely changed,” she said. “Now we have light, we have a freezer. Our lives have been transformed. It is the good life! We are overwhelmed with joy!”
It is impossible for me to describe all of the encounters and experiences that I had during this trip. I also met with the Congregation of the Soeurs Missionnaires du Saint-Esprit and saw renovations we supported to their kitchen and met with a group of young seminarians with the Missionaries of the Holy Apostles, whose studies are supported by the Roncalli Foundation through the Baillairgé Fund.
Wherever I went, people thanked me for coming all the way from Canada to meet them and see their reality. It was me, however, who was so grateful to them for welcoming with open arms, for sharing their culture and for their courage and determination to see the projects to completion. It was a joy to celebrate together all of these achievements, and truly recognizing that it is together and in solidarity that we are walking this path towards a more humane world.