Writing Creatively With Spirit

A journey of psychic discovery


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Cameroon Experience – Reflections – Teaching love not fear

Tuesday 22nd October 2013

As I write this I’m reflecting on the fact that this time last week I was still sitting on a coach which was by then 3 hours late getting from Bamenda to Douala.

MAC cafe and bar Birmingham UK

MAC cafe and bar Birmingham UK

I’m writing in the MAC (Midland’s Arts Centre) Cafe, one of my favourite places in Birmingham. I’m not the only one using this place as a writing haven, there are at least five other people with laptops and coffee.

Last night, at their request, I did a presentation of my experiences to my ACIM (A Course in Miracles) study group. An hour was nowhere near long enough to share more than the highlights. Even so it was enough for those who had not followed the blog to get the general gist of the organisation, their approach, my brief spell with them and what they have left me with.

I was able to share some of the videos with them, including the one of Fred (the director of SEREP) thanking them for their donation to the school building project. They were visibly moved and spontaneously applauded.

‘Your words drew us in,’ one member said, ‘but seeing the video of the children singing made them real for us.’

I’ve still to upload the video of which he speaks, but one thing at a time.

I had no idea how exhausted I was. I’m just now coming back to my normal levels of energy so it may be a few days still before I get the videos uploaded.

Sometimes I’ve lain on my back looking up at the ceiling re-running conversations in my head. One that stands out boldly and gets a few replays is the feedback session with Fred on my last day at the project. Particularly my feedback on the school.

There were three practices which I’d been very uncomfortable with from the start. These were;

  1. Use of the cane.
  2. The practice of calling children ‘criminals’ when they had committed a misdemeanour and also being ‘punished’ for their ‘crimes’.
  3. Being called ‘bad’ when they broke school rules.

Being aware of possible psychological damage these practices can have on developing minds I endeavoured to operate differently in my teaching methods as a means of demonstrating a different approach.

I therefore never called a child ‘bad’ or ‘criminal’ and I never threatened the use of the cane or any other form of corporal punishment. Instead I appealed to the children’s better nature, asked them to put themselves in the place of the other person if the misdemeanour was related to another person. If it was a refusal to participate in an activity or to carry out a request I would find out why and try to work towards a solution that was acceptable to all.

Of course it took longer to gain compliance this way. My approach was tested by some of the more challenging children, but eventually they realised that I was not going to revert to corporal punishment. They recognised that I was genuinely interested in them and their reasons for non-compliance, and that I care about them.

What I got in return was disciplined lesson which came from diligence to the task in hand rather than from threat of retribution.

2013-10-13 14.55.54I’m in no way suggesting that the current staff group do not care about the children – I believe they care very deeply, and I believe they use the methods they do to instil the discipline they know the children need in order to succeed. Indeed the school’s motto is ‘No success without discipline.’ The teachers were simply using the methods that were used with them.

I shared my concerns with Fred at that last meeting, because not only had he observed my methods, but had sent others to my classes to watch me teach.

I was expecting strong resistance to my suggestions that the use of the cane should cease, and at least some resistance to the use of ‘bad’ and ‘criminal’ to describe children.

I was astonished by Fred’s willingness to agree to my requests once he understood the potential damage. As he is the main user of the cane (teachers refer misbehaving children to him) he was willing from that day to begin to look for alternatives to caning.

He would also be ceasing the use of ‘bad’ and ‘criminal’ and would be encouraging his staff to do the same. Although he anticipated some resistance there he was prepared to give it a go.

I suggested that maybe when I came next year that I could run a workshop for his staff on the issues I’d just discussed with him.

He reflected a moment.

‘The problem is that it isn’t just our school that uses these words about children, or that uses physical punishment. Calling children criminals is rife in the society, and also in other schools. Would you consider including other teachers from other schools in such a workshop?’

My mouth fell open. This was beyond my wildest expectations, and had I not been leaving the next day I would have begun the planning straight away.

I think it’s brilliant that Fred will be trying something different in his school. Hopefully by the time I return to run such a workshop he will have the evidence that this approach can work in African schools. When we teach from a point of love rather than from a point of fear anything is possible.

This is the same message I’m preparing to take with me to Barbados next month. Hopefully I’ll have the course for the polytechnic on effective parenting completed by then.

 

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Cameroon Experience – The return home

Thursday 17th October 2013

The day began at 4.50 a.m. because Emmanuel (my staff escort) and the taxi were coming to pick me up at 5.30.

Emmanuel - my staff escort

Emmanuel – my staff escort

Although I’d prepared my clothes and pretty much packed everything before I went to bed it was still a struggle to find everything by torchlight, as very heavy rain in the night had caused a power cut. I just about managed it, but decided to do my make-up later as I’d need three hands to accomplish that feat by touch. Next time I’m going to bring one of those torches that also acts as a lantern – like the one Charlott (one of the German volunteers) had.

Emmanuel was on time but the taxi was about 15 minutes late. Chima had woken up to see me off and helped to carry my bags out to the taxi. There were already five people in the taxi, two in the back and three in the front (including the driver).

He had to make space in the boot for my two large suitcases which meant moving a few other bags around. Also the live chicken which one of the passengers was carrying to Bamenda. Emmanuel and I squeezed in beside the man and woman in the back and so the tight fit began for the three hour journey to Bamenda.

About an hour into the journey I became aware of an intense headache and a very nauseous feeling in my stomach. Emmanuel later said that he too had the same symptoms, and blamed it on the chicken which was continually using the back of the car as a toilet.

It was lovely to be leaving Kumbo by daylight, and I even remembered some of the villages from my journey into Kumbo just four weeks ago. Then I was so fatigued I could barely take it all in. Now I was fresh. Squashed but fresh.

Piling the mini bus high at Bamenda coach station

Piling the mini bus high at Bamenda coach station

The pot-holes didn’t seem as intense or as frequent – or maybe I’d become acclimatised to them after a month. The trip to Bamenda was therefore fairly uneventful and it wasn’t until we all got out at the coach station that I realised that the leg that had been most tightly squeezed next to the woman on my right was covered in sweat from my thigh to my knee.

I can’t explain the feeling of revulsion as I realised that I’d have to keep my jeans on for the whole day, at least another 25 hours. But I’m pretty quick at making the best of a bad situation, and even the 90 minutes delay of the coach leaving didn’t faze me too much.

I did, however, feel a lot of sympathy for Emmanuel who was still feeling nauseous. He was even persuaded to buy some strange looking powder from a vendor who told him it was good for stomach aches. He also told me it was good for reproduction and offered some to me. I assured him that my reproducing days were well and truly behind me, and he moved on muttering something that I couldn’t quite understand.

Although Emmanuel tried to persuade himself that the powder was working I could see that it clearly wasn’t, and by the time the coach was ready to leave he was desperate to sit next to the window. Unfortunately the window didn’t open by our seat so he swapped with someone behind us.

This is how I came to be sitting next to the ancient gentleman who looked and smelled like he’d not quite managed to make it to the toilet in time. He tried to talk to me in a language no one around me could understand, and I have to confess to reverting to a technique of not engaging in conversation. I got my headphones out, plugged them into my phone and began listening to music. It was the first time I’d done this since arriving in Cameroon.

By the time the smell really began to bother me it was about 12.30, and as it turned out there was still another eight hours to go. The journey which should have taken 6 hours took 9 hours. Not only that, but when it rained the water came in just by where I was sitting. I had to rescue my bag from the floor in front of me. I moved it to my lap as it contained my laptop, but it wasn’t safe even there.

Fortunately I had my raincoat in the bag. I whipped it out quickly and it was this which protected my bag and its precious contents.

There were many stops to allow food vendors onto the coach, and each time that this happened the floor became filled with more and more garbage. The man next to me was one of the main culprits.

After about five and a half hours the bus broke down. It needed a wheel change. I used this opportunity to try and find a toilet as there had been no toilet stops on the way. There were no toilets and I didn’t feel like joining the men who seemed happy to urinate into the canal opposite the market place – in full public view.

By the time we set off again I was beginning to get stomach cramps and realised that I would soon be smelling like the man next to me if I didn’t get to a toilet soon.

I focused all my thoughts on finding a toilet asap. Each time the coach bounced over yet another pot-hole that sent most of the passengers at the back bouncing up and down like a fairground ride, my stomach cramped and I felt my sphincter muscles groan under the strain.

I was on the verge of going to demand that the driver stopped when he pulled into the side of the road to let some passengers get off.  I ran to the front of the coach, got off and told him I needed to use a toilet.

He looked around and said there were no toilets and I could not use the side of the road as it was in a built up area. I was panic stricken. I looked around, willing at this point to drop my trousers and do it in front of the whole bus if necessary.

It a then I saw the garage across the road with a sign that said ‘Toilets’. Not even stopping to ask the driver how long we were stopping for I headed in the direction of the sign.

‘Madam!’ I heard a voice call.

I looked up. It was one of the garage workers.

‘Damn,’ I thought, I haven’t brought any money to pay for the toilet.

He came running over to me and held out his hand.

‘You’ll need this,’ he said handing me a key.

I smiled my gratitude and carried on my flight in the direction of the sign. I opened the door on what was a ceramic plate on the floor with a hole at one end. It was luxury compared to the alternative I’d been contemplating, and I was mightily relieved.

Only afterward did I notice that the water over the sink did not work and there was no way of flushing the toilet.

There was a knock on the door, which in my haste I had not locked.

‘Coming!’ I almost screamed, only to find the same member of staff standing there with a bucket of water. He smiled at me and left. After flushing and washing my hands I returned the key to him. He did not ask me for any money.

It happens like this in Cameroon sometimes. In the middle of a bad situation someone’s kind response changes everything.

Faye and JC

Faye and JC

I got back onto the coach and sat through another three hours of the bumpy ride before arriving in Douala. It was too late to meet with Fay and JC at their hotel as planned. They were also travelling back  the same night. Our flights were within an hour of each other. The plan had been to meet up and share a meal together and then travel to the airport in the same taxi.

As it was, I just made it to the airport in time to have a brief discussion with them before needing to check in. Stepping into the airport provided the first feeling of order for the day. Stepping onto the aircraft was going into another world. A world without live chickens, or garbage on the floor, or smelly people sitting next to me.

Emmanuel Faye Emmanuel and JC

Emmanuel Faye Emmanuel and JC

A world in which a complaint about the seating would be taken seriously, unlike on the coach when a woman complained about the way the seats wobbled when we went over a bump (and there were many bumps). The conductor sat in the seat while the coach was stationary and told her there was nothing wrong with it. A world where the rain wouldn’t come in and threaten to ruin your valuables.

Emmanuel Faye Me and JC

Emmanuel Faye Me and JC

I finally relaxed, and apart from a brief conversation with my fellow travelers I slept most of the way. The connections at Charles de Gaulle were smooth and effortless, as was the taxi ride home.

Twenty-eight and a half hours from door to door. Two continents – worlds apart. I need to rest and reflect on what I can take from each for my own growth and development.

Although I slept for 13 hours yesterday, I still need more sleep. Maybe as much as 28 hours.


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Cameroon Experience – Staff and volunteers goodbyes

14th October 2013

I just about managed to hold back the tears as I sat through another set of goodbyes. This time it was the director, the staff in the office, members of the school governing body, other associates of the organisation and our newest volunteer who arrived last night. Unfortunately all the other volunteers were busy as the director had to move the presentation from 7 p.m. to 4 p.m.

2013-10-13 22.05.39I was genuinely touched by their gratitude for what I’d managed to achieve with the projects, and especially the school.

The director prayed for my safe return home before presenting me with gifts from the Parent Teacher’s Association and an attestation certificate outlining my areas of responsibility and my approach to my volunteering.

This was followed by speeches of thanks from a member of the governing body, the associate and members of staff.

Food magically materialised in two large thermos flasks containing the local dishes of corn fufu, huckleberry and beef. Everyone toasted my safe return and said they looked forward to seeing me next year.

I felt like a daughter leaving her family. But with the wonders of technology I will be in touch with them until my return. My taxi arrives to pick me up at 5.30 a.m. tomorrow for the marathon journey home.

2013-10-13 23.27.53


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Cameroon Experience – School goodbye

14th October 2013

2013-10-13 14.58.19Although today is a bank holiday the children were asked to come in to school to say goodbye to me. I was amazed that virtually all the children were there. They sat on the new benches that have been made as a result of recent donations and listened as the director gave a speech about my coming and what its meant to the school.

He then asked them to sing and for each student who felt so moved to say something about how they had experienced my visit.

The singing raised the energy in the room to such an extent that I was moved to tears. And even more so as both senior and junior students stood and spoke of the difference my being here has made to them personally and to the school generally.

When it came to my turn to make a response I heard myself saying that I had come here to find my family, and having done so and being so warmly welcomed that I would be coming back every year to see how they’re getting on.

Where did that come from! I hadn’t even thought it before it came out of my mouth!! So now I’m committed to coming back every year. It’s probably not such a bad idea as I’ve realised that there’s much I can do here to help with capacity building both on an individual and community level.

Many of the students came to hug me before they left, and to wish me God’s guidance on my way home and again when I come to visit next time.

One offered me a gift of food. A cornmeal dish cooked in banana leaf. As I tasted it I realised that it is the same as something we have in Jamaica.

‘Duckuno!’ I exclaimed, ‘We have this in Jamaica.’

A little crowd gathered as I munched through what they call……. and marvelled at how well preserved the cooking process had been maintained over hundreds of years.

Yes, I’ll be back next year; and probably for some years to come. It would be good to see the Form 1 become Form 6.


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Cameroon Experience – To the palace

Sunday 13th October 2013

2013-10-09 14.15.36I’ve had the volunteer house to myself since from Friday about 2.30 p.m. Well, almost to myself. There’s me, the resident mouse that traverses frequently between the lounge and the kitchen, and the mosquito in my room.

The two German girls and one of the English men have gone to a small town just outside Bamenda for the weekend. They left about 2.30 p.m. Friday.

The other two English volunteers who arrived last week have gone to Douala to see the disability project there before leaving on Tuesday. I will meet them again at the airport as our flights are within an hour of each other, but for now I have the house more or less to myself.

After a day of rest on Friday when I spent most of the time writing I had a pretty packed day yesterday.

It began with washing my clothes by hand before going to the office to help Emmanuelle the IT specialist with a website issue. Yes. Me. Helping with websites. There’s nothing like being in a place where the little you know is so much more that what the others know.

New classroom being used even before the plaster's dry

New classroom being used even before the plaster’s dry

I’ve shown him the power of WordPress for communicating with the world and he instantly saw the potential for the organisation of a free website.

It was followed by a quick visit to the school to check on the progress as I haven’t been down there since Wednesday. There was a 6th form Saturday class in progress in one of the newer classrooms, and the plasterer was busy at work.

Bana with well bartered cock

Bana with well bartered cock

I dashed back to get changed into my newly acquired African gown for a visit to the palace. The entry fee is one chicken and 5 gallons of palm wine, plus a 1000 franks tip for each of the guides.

I watched as my friend Bana bartered hard for a reasonably priced chicken, but he accepted the standard fee for the palm wine.

When we got to the palace gates there was no one there, but a quick call brought a tall man in a black leather coat strolling slowly toward us.

He accepted our chicken and wine and was helped by another guide to take them into the palace. We had to wait in a reception area as women are not allowed in certain parts of the palace.

Five gallons of palm wine

Five gallons of palm wine

While we waited Bana explained that the Fon (king) of the palace has over 80 wives who live in many of the house around the vast compound, although most of its vastness was not visible from where we were standing.

The two men re-emerged from the door carrying a pitcher and two bowls. As he approached I realised that the bowls were made from calabash.

We were taken into a reception room which contained a pool table and out of which a small boy was chased.

The guides beckoned to us to sit on a long bench. I sat and crossed my legs. Bana immediately reprimanded me for doing so. ‘You don’t cross your legs in here,’ he said.

Palm wine from calabash

Palm wine from calabash

The two guides offered us the bowls and poured palm wine into each. I asked for only a small amount as I’ve not yet acquired the taste for it.

I agreed to have a drop more and reached for the pitcher with my left hand. Again another reprimand. ‘You do not use your left hand to pour,’ Bana said.

‘Why?’ I asked confused.

‘It’s custom,’ he said.

I got a sense that he was a little embarrassed by my lack of etiquette and I had to explain to the guides that if I was doing something wrong it was because of ignorance not insolence. I told them that the children I work with had named me Bonkiyung which means ‘a fool who has to learn,’ It’s a name I readily accepted as there is still much for me to learn.

As it turned out one of the guides said his name was also Bonkiyung.

‘You could be my brother I exclaimed,’ which broke the ice. Bana went on to explain the circumstances of my visit, i.e a return to my ancestral home. The guides were very interested and were disappointed that the Fon was not at home to greet me. They said that when I come next time to arrange in advance an audience with the Fon who they are sure will be very interested in meeting me.

The throne room

The throne room

They then went on to show us another quarter of the palace, namely the throne room where the Fon holds court (literally, he presides over disputes).

It was quite a short visit, given the entrance fee, but the guides were very pleasant and very grateful for their gratuity.

‘Why does the Fon have over 80 wives?’ I asked Bana as we left.

‘Because he’s quite an old man now. Some of his wives are actually quite old now, but he can’t put them out so they all live in the palace with him,’ he answered. There wasn’t enough English between us for me to pursue the conceptual as opposed to the practical issue of 80 wives.

I was also unclear about what he called ‘inculturation’ which means that Christian men can have more than one wife which alleviates the need for them to be sent away from the village if they are caught committing adultery.

Drinking corn beer

Drinking corn beer

He showed me some of the slum areas behind the main entertainment area of Squares where people drink corn beer in many small and dingy parlours. He asked if I wanted to try the corn beer.

It’s a thick beverage made from fermented corn and comes in three strengths depending on the length of fermentation. I went for the medium strength and joined the group of men already working their way through several jugs.

A litre of corn beer is 100 francs, compared to 600-600 franks for 750 ml of beer. It’s the equivalent of cheap strong cider, but I have to confess to liking it better than palm wine.

Again I was reprimanded for trying to pour with my left hand. Apparently it’s bad luck. ‘What of left-handed people,’ I asked, but again the explanation was lost in the translation.

The men in the bar mistook me for one of them because of my dress and started addressing me in Lamnso, the local language. Bana had to explain that although I look like I’m from here I’m actually a Jamaican living in England.

They welcomed me warmly and went back to their beers – language can be such a barrier sometimes.

From there Bana showed me some more of the less salubrious areas of Squares before taking me to the Catholic Cathedral and some of the nicer bars and hotels.

I could have danced all night

I could have danced all night

I left him in Squares to go back to the office to show how very African I was looking. The dress met with much approval.

Then it was time to go home and replace the dress with more ‘night out at Squares’ attire. I met Chima and Immaculate there for a last drink before my departure, and was later joined by Bana who ended up leading me in a dance around the bar. I could have danced all night but alas, my companions attend church on Sundays and needed to leave early.

2013-10-12 02.45.21It’s the first time I’ve been able to totally relax and enjoy a social event since I’ve been here, knowing that all my tasks are completed.

Only two more sleeps before I head off for home.


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Cameroon Experience – That end of term feeling

Wednesday 9th October 2013

2013-10-09 14.00.14After teaching my last lesson I headed off to collect some items of clothes that were being made for me.

Although I love the children the pressure of teaching twenty hours a week was beginning to tell. This is in conjunction with visiting the other projects at the weekend, writing the blogs and advising in a number of other capacities.

Now it was time to go and do some things for me. To go out and hail a bike for the first time on my own  and say ‘take me to Tobin.’ To sit confidently on it even if I wasn’t confident I’d recognise where to tell him to drop me off.

Fortunately I didn’t have to worry too long about it as Immaculate, my seamstress, had come out into the road to make sure I didn’t get lost.

2013-10-09 14.09.00After only a few alterations I left clutching some beautiful garments. A long African gown, a western style suit and a top she truncated from and ill-fitting dress.

Happily clutching my purchases we returned to the bike rank to pick up a ride back to Nver (where I’m staying in Kumbo) to film Fred the director for a promo video.

That was my last duty of the day. I couldn’t wait to head out to Squares to eat the delicious fish and chips they prepare there, and to finally relax with a beer. Yes, I’m drinking beer – in the absence of a good Sauvignon Blanc.

Ah bliss!


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Cameroon Experience – Last lessons

Wednesday 9th October 2013

My turn to sit and listen

My turn to sit and listen

Today I taught my last lesson at the school. It was to Class 3. Maybe teaching is a bit of a misnomer because I mainly listened. After 3 weeks of being at the front of the class this last week was my turn to sit at a desk and be talked to by the children.

It began with my last lesson with Class 4 on Monday when I listened to their aspirations for their future. I’ve been working with them on visualisations and affirmations, on ‘beginning with the end in sight’ and working backwards to achieving it.

We created affirmations for brilliant bankers, accountants, secretaries, teachers, business owners and one president – His Excellency Ferdinand.

Some embraced the concepts wholeheartedly and I know they will practice them. Others were a little more sceptical but participated non-the-less.

2013-10-07 17.46.46On Tuesday it was time to listen to Class 1 read the stories I’ve been working on with them. I’d managed to secure some pretty exciting prizes for the three best stories. Sight of these galvanised even the most reluctant public speaker to get up and make sure he was in with a chance.

As I listened to him struggle through his short piece I realised that this young man had made the greatest stride of all the children I’ve taught in my time here.

He’d begun by being surly and passively resistive until I realised that his resistance was due to his inability to spell, and sometimes not being able to read what was on the board. Once these things were rectified it enabled him to tap into a seam of creativity which he was now able to demonstrate.

Winner of 1st prize

Winner of 1st prize

There were three clear front runners for the prizes, all girls. I had the privilege of two spare colleagues who kindly took photos and filmed all the children.

Winner of 2nd prize

Winner of 2nd prize

The only time I was in front of the class was to give out the prizes and to read to them the story I’d written, into which I’d managed to weave all their names.

They were so well behaved and so focused that we finished early and I was happy to give them a few minutes extra break to share their prizes and to eat the sweets I’d bought to share with the whole class.

Winner of 3rd prize

Winner of 3rd prize

Today, Wednesday, was my final day of classes. It began with the two 6th Form classes. I’ve been working on presentation skills with them. They too have travelled a journey from reluctant participants to eager and polished presenters.

All the presentations showed progress. There were a few outstanding ones, full of passion and promise. The topics were very varied and I learned a lot about the community and the culture, from views on educating girls to how to behave in the presence of elders.

Finally it was the turns of Classes 2 and 3 to read their stories to me and to their class mates. There were some outstanding pieces in Class 2, so much so that I could easily have awarded 5 prizes. Again all girls.

The girl mould was broken in Class 3 when a boy produced a story well worthy of a prize. It was also the only class where there were some non-participants. A few who had missed some lessons and some who didn’t feel confident enough to read.

Although all the children had said how much they would miss me, it was in Class 3 that one handed me a folded note on which she had written ‘To the honourable Predencia, I love you Miss. Thanks for your co-operation with us through out these weeks. Good bye. See you next time in heaven or on Earth.’ I’ve said hopefully it will be on Earth.

A goodbye note

A goodbye note

I feel that I’ve just scratched the surface of what is possible in helping these children to think creatively, to see something more than the mundane, to tap into the infinite possibilities that await them in the world. A very few have allowed themselves to begin to believe.

I will have to be content with that for now as belief is the most powerful driving force in the world.

I walked away from the school yesterday exhausted, but was carried on the appreciation and genuinely love I felt from these children.

I will see them again one final time at the Monday morning assembly when I shall say my final goodbye.