Life in Mbokop, Cameroon
It was my second time in Mbokop, and unlike the first time, I traveled there alone to this remote community in NW Cameroon. It hasn’t been a year since my last trip there, and it seemed like nothing had changed. It was harvest season, which meant that most adults (which there is anyone over 14 years or so) were busy in the fields reaping corn, beans and jama jama (green leafy vegetable). School was not in session, which meant that I was constantly surrounded by children, wondering what the hell I am doing here and eager to get their picture taken. Aside from EWB project-related work that I was doing in the community, I had the chance to really bond with the people there. Perhaps I was more accessible due to the fact that I was there alone. Here are a couple of excerpts from my journal while there.
Unlike most of my other trips in rural communities, I am doing home stays this time around. Tonight I have rolled out my sleeping bag in what appears to be someone’s living room in the central compound of Mangi. People have opened up their houses to me, allowing me an unprecedented glimpse of their lives. My meals – I have about six every day – are being “crowdsourced” from different kitchens belonging to various families. I did groceries before coming here, mostly rice and vegetables, which I handed over to the women of this compound. Whatever happened to them, I don’t know, because most of my meals entail corn fufu, jama jama and meat. Meat is a prized commodity here, and being served with it every meal, I realize I am being presented the best of the best they have here. Nonetheless, I am striving to live like a local, doing away with mosquito nets, water filters, sunscreen, malaria pills and other items listed under “travel essentials”.
If necessity is the mother of invention, I am living among inventors and engineers. There is innovation all around me – from the homemade antenna of an old radio and the AAA battery-powered cell phone charger, to the boy outside doing his homework by moonlight. Being innovative has probably nothing to do with ones level of education. I wonder what would happen if we just dropped off in the middle of the community, all the materials needed to build this water system, and perhaps an IKEA-styled brochure. What would happen if the man who made that charger had my undergrad electrical engineering books?
People here live as close to the earth as they are to each other. They have a sense of presence far profound than mine. I stand to learn so much from them – to gain knowledge of myself from sharing their experiences. People here are present in the moment, with the world around them and the ones with them. I live in a society which evaluates me by my accumulations – of knowledge and wealth and experiences. But the path to presence I have learned, is more about removing things than adding them. I may know more of the world, but here, I feel ignorant about myself.
Tonight we sat around a fire and stargazed for hours on end. The old headmaster of the government school in Mangi bestowed upon us stories of the Mbum tribe, from which the majority of the people here hail. I found out that Mbokop means the hills in the forest. Such as apt name. Pastor Julius shared with us some Biblical stories, while I used my fancy iPhone app to tell everyone which star clusters form which constellations in the night sky. People’s eyes lit up brighter than the stars when the shapes of the Roman constellations magically appeared as I pointed my phone in their direction. Perhaps the ancestors of the Mbum people would take part in this stargazing ritual hundreds of years ago. Sans the iPhone of course.
It’s Eid today! The Mbororo tribe in the community fasted for the entire month of Ramadan according to Muslim customs. The month long fasting ended with a day of feasting today, and the Mbororo settlements had an air of celebration. Everyone was out in colorful clothing in stark contrast to the gloomy sky. On my walk from Mangi to Ntayi, I was stopped three times at different Mbororo houses and was invited to join for a meal. This was one of the rare occasions when I got to sit around and chat with the Mbororo, who are much more conservative than the other tribes. I learnt that the word Mbororo means wanderer, referring to their traditional way of life. The Fulani (proper word for Mbororo), have only settled down in pastoral communities in the last half decade or so. In many ways, it seems like they are still adjusting to this lifestyle. I had my meals with all men, while the women of the households clustered in separate houses in the compound. There is a disproportionately higher number of women then men because of polygamy. One of the most frequent questions I got asked is, “where’s your wife?” I was returned with a look of surprise when I answered that I was single.
Winifred is my favorite person in this community. She has this uncanny way of knowing exactly what I need, before I can even ask. Last night, when I could not eat any more meat after two days of Eid feasting, she brought me a bag of guavas, gooseberries and this delicious mystery fruit. This morning she warmed up some water for me so I could take my first real shower in a week. Winnie, you’re the best!
We just our last community meeting in Mangi this morning. I didn’t call this meeting, the community just gathered to say goodbye, knowing I am leaving today. With no set agenda, I mostly just thanked everyone for their hospitality over the past week, and reiterated our plans for the implementation of the water project. After this, about six people from the community took turns in thanking my team and expressing what this project means to them. This was perhaps one of the most fulfilling experiences ever. My favorite quote, translated and relayed to me by Pastor Julius, came from the school headmaster: “No good thing in this world comes easy. It will be hard to build this project. But we will work hard together to bring clean water to Mangi”