Writing Creatively With Spirit

A journey of psychic discovery


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Cameroon Experience – Mbhosha

Monday 7th October 2013

The volunteer house in Kumbo - close living

The volunteer house in Kumbo – close living

I’ve been in Kumbo since I arrived three weeks ago. It’s a busy commercial town, tightly packed with houses and people.

Its multi-religious nature is reflected in the many churches. It has a Catholic cathedral and a Muslim mosques standing almost side by side in the entertainment quarter known as Squares. (It’s where I went for my birthday, where the fish and chips are delicious and not like they are in England).

The mosque at Squares

The mosque at Squares

It is also where the Muslim call to prayer at 5 a.m. every morning originates and is so loud that I’ve only managed to sleep through it a couple of times – because I’ve been exhausted from the night before.

If that doesn’t wake me the noise from the loud music next door which usually begins around 6 a.m. (and on one occasion at 4 a.m.) usually does.

Inadequate waste disposal in Kumbo

Inadequate waste disposal in Kumbo

The streets show evidence of inadequate waste disposal as the town attempts to deal with the many hundreds, possibly thousands of people who pour into it each day to work, shop, or engage in financial transactions.

Interspersed with all of this are glimpses of the beauty of the distant hills, and much closer to hand the red earth is thrown into sharp contrast by the vivid green of banana trees, palm trees and other lush vegetation.

Views of the distant hills from the volunteer house in Kumbo

Views of the distant hills from the volunteer house in Kumbo

I have to confess that the mud and the rubbish on the streets, the fumes of the heavy lorries bringing goods to the supermarkets, and the constant whine of the hundreds of motorbikes that are used here as taxis, have at times got to me.

But I’ve been so focused on teaching and on meeting the people who have aided my spiritual development that I’ve not had time to get out of Kumbo. Until this weekend that is, when I took the trip to Mbhosha to see two of SEREP’s other projects; the clinic and the women’s empowerment groups.

I had been told that Mbhosha is beautiful but that the road to get to it was difficult and dangerous when wet. Indeed a couple of the volunteers who worked in the clinic and with the women’s groups reported coming off their bikes on more than one occasion on the way home  after heavy rain had made the road a mud bath.

I had vowed to take a proper taxi and pay the extra money to get there. However, my host told me it was very difficult to get to his place by car and that he would send a bike with a reliable rider to get me.

Although the bike was an hour late arriving, it gave me a chance to talk to one of the students who had arrived at the head office for extra-curricular computer lessons about the importance of believing in yourself.

It is no lie that the road to Mbhosha is tricky. The rider confirmed this as soon as I got on the bike. I asked if he’d mind if I held on to him as it was my first time on a bike without having someone behind me (three on a bike is common here).

I don’t know what I’d have done if he’d refused because he was my anchor as we bounced and weaved our way over the bumpy uneven roads, or more accurately mud tracks. Not only was I bouncing around like I was on a fairground ride, but my bones were being shaken out of their sockets by the very gravelly nature of the road. My leg was numb from trying to keep it in one position, i.e. tight on the bike, and I was happy I’d taken the advice to wear my Wellington boots. When I finally got off the bike they were splashed with mud that had flown up during the journey.

I had great admiration for the rider who had to use his feet to negotiate the bike out of the deeper ruts. One was so deep that the bike stalled three times as he tried to start it. I thought we might not be able to go on, but he was skilled and got us through it. I tried to film the road but soon gave up as I needed both hands to hold on.

There was a point, however, when I stopped noticing the road and started noticing the beauty of the surroundings. We had left behind the busyness of Kumbo, the rubbish and the noise, and was passing through the most beautiful mountains.

Imagine the Lake District in England with sunshine on the hills, bathing the slopes in glorious shades of light and grey. Imagine valleys of palm trees so tightly packed together that they appear to be one giant tree.

I gasped with the sheer beauty of it and couldn’t stop exclaiming each time we came around another bend, ‘Oh, it’s beautiful!’

2013-10-04 18.56.33As we climbed the vegetation changed. By the time we arrived at our destination the palm trees, banana trees, and other tropical plants had given way to more temperate ones. By the time we stopped at our destination, or more accurately near our destination, because the bike had run out of petrol, there were bracken and grass covered hills identical to those in England.

We walked the last few yards to the compound and I was met by my host. He’s a quiet gentle man about 30-35 years old.

‘Welcome to my compound,’ Kari said shaking my hand warmly. ‘These are my daughters,’ he added pointing to two small girls and a slightly taller one. They too welcomed me. I was surprised to see that they wore make up, including lipstick. I wondered why, because they were stunningly beautiful without it.

Kari took my bag, took me to the parlour and asked the eldest daughter Baki to bring me tea while he went to deal with the rider. Kari explained that I had to pay him 1500F now and the balance of 3000F when he took me back to Kumbo tomorrow. This was a far cry from the 12,000F it would have cost if I’d taken a car.

Goats grazing on the hills in Mbhosha

Goats grazing on the hills in Mbhosha

All of this was incidental, however, because I was gawping at the scenery around me.  At the sheep and goats grazing on the hills, at the trees resting on the tops of the mountains like punctuation marks, at the flowering hedgerows that surrounded the house.

I hadn’t had time to drink my tea before Kari said he had to help catch a horse. I went out to watch (the tea was in a thermos anyway) and recalled the film ‘The Horse Whisperer’ as I watched him approach one horse in the middle of about ten others. I watch as he whispered quietly to the horse while gently stroking it. When the horse was totally trusting he quickly and deftly slipped the rope over his neck and led him off. The three young men who had been standing around and the other horses followed.

The daughters of the house

The daughters of the house

All except one which was tied to a tree. It provided a perfect backdrop for a photo shoot of the girls and a little boy who belonged to the bike rider who had so skilfully delivered me to this paradise.

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Cameroon Experience – End of another school week

Friday 4th October 2013

A few of Class 1's pupils after their creative efforts

A few of Class 1’s pupils after their creative efforts

I’m not as exhausted as I was last week at this time. I’ve somehow managed to find a way round the intense challenge of teaching classes and 1 and 2 with only a thin dividing wall which is often not even a wall. It was all credit to the children who knuckled down and got on with the job in hand.

We did the affirmation ‘I am very creative,’ often before they began writing their stories. We also did some loosening up exercise to get the creative juices flowing. Most of them love it. I’ve explained to them that creativity needs fun.

I was amazed that they didn’t hear the bell for break, and even though I asked them three times if they wanted to take a break, not a single child answered.

What I observed today in this class of 12-14 year-olds was true creative energy at work. They had entered that zone where time does not exist, where they and their characters were so intricately entwined that the fact that a whole school of children playing outside did not register with them.

They put their hands up frequently to ask for the spelling of words and were often impatient for me to spell the word quickly so that they could get back to their stories.

‘It doesn’t get any better than this,’ I said quietly to one of the new volunteers who had been sent to observe me.

Work is progressing upstairs to get the classrooms ready for Monday. Two floors are now concreted, and when I left the walls were being plastered. The tarpaulin had been removed in preparation for the zinc to be put in place.

Monday may bring a very different experience, but nothing can take away the sheer pleasure of watching children being totally absorbed in creation.


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Cameroon Experience – Donating a Difference

Wednesday 2nd October 2013

It came to my attention on Saturday that no building work was taking place at the school. A couple of the volunteers said that the project had run out of money. I was very concerned as the extra classrooms being built upstairs are desperately needed.

Work begins again on the school

Work begins again on the school

It is nigh on impossible to teach classes one and two as the dividing wall between the two classes is plywood, with doors that open randomly. I have described the difficulty in another blog.

I decided to find out from the director on Tuesday when work resumed following the election bank holiday. When we met he confirmed that the project had no funds to continue the building work.

I had already decided that I would offer a donation if he confirmed the lack of money. I asked him if £300 would be sufficient to get the project moving again. His face told me everything I needed to confirm this.

I arranged for the money to be sent to me via Western Union. This was done within half an hour of our conversation.

Fred went into action immediately. He contacted the building supervisor and arranged for a meeting between the three of us in which we discussed the most appropriate way to use the funds.

Making the building completely water-tight was not possible on this budget, but it would be possible to roof two of the classrooms. This would enable the floors to be concreted which would make them usable as soon as the concrete dried.

Work began on Wednesday morning as soon as I was able to collect the funds from Western Union. The process for doing this deserves its own blog.

Not only will two new classrooms become available, possible by the end of the week, there will be sufficient funds to have extra benches made, and to buy new blackboards.

By the middle of the afternoon the school was a hive of activity. The main builders were being assisted by two of the new volunteers, and at times the director himself. At the close of school many of the children stayed behind to help with the building work.

I am amazed at the difference my £300 made. It’s a project I recognise makes a real difference to the lives of many disadvantaged children. I know there a many such projects and I cannot support them all, but it’s hard not to support something when you observe the massive difference a small contribution can make.

If you’re interested in joining me in supporting this project I’d love to hear from you. Oh dear! I’m beginning to sound like one of those begging ads. But as the Tesco ad says – Every Little Helps.


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Cameroon Experience – Goings and comings

Tuesday 1st October 2013

Laura Nancy and Jasmine who are leaving after 2 months with SEREP

Laura Nancy and Jasmine who are leaving after 2 months with SEREP

I had that Monday morning feeling that follows a bank holiday. The elections went without anything too news worthy. The general view of most people was that the ruling party was going to get back in again because the opposition was too disorganised. Many of them were more interested in the local elections, the candidates who were going to deal with local issues. Issues such as ensuring that the road on which I slipped and fell on Sunday is paved. Someone pointed out that the clinic across the road from our house deals mainly with pregnant women.

‘What if it was one of them?’ he asked. ‘People’s lives are being put at risk in small ways that can be easily remedied.’

While some people seemed excited about the elections, many were quite resigned to the fact that nothing was going to change, and that there was little point wasting their time voting. It seemed very reminiscent of the statements I heard in England during the last general election.

People are losing faith in what we still call democracy, in the emerging as well as the mature democracies.

Three new volunteers arrive from the UK today, two men and a woman. Unfortunately they’d booked their flights before the Cameroon Government announced the general election. They were not to know that they would arrive in a country in lock down which made a long and arduous journey even longer and more arduous.

Thankfully it didn’t dampen their spirits as they’re raring to get involved. It looks like they’ll be involved in building the school as well as doing some teaching. Two are here for two weeks and the other for three.

Three of the female volunteers are leaving tomorrow after a two month stint. They worked mainly in the clinic and with the women empowerment groups. I’m hoping to visit these parts of the project at the weekend. They are in a place called Mbosha, which is about an hour’s drive from Kumbo.

I try not to think too much about the constant changes in the children’s lives as people come and go. There is only a small group of core teachers that provide continuity, and these are only available when there’s enough money to pay them.

Majority of the children at the school are either orphans or severely disadvantaged in some other way. It seems what they need most is consistency, yet there is less of this than in the Government schools where teaching is more predictable.

This is not a criticism of the school. The one consistency it provides is a place for the children to come to every week day, and many of them travel up to 90 minutes each way on foot to get there.

And occasionally, as at the moment, there are volunteers who stay for a whole year. There are two young German women who are here for a year on scheme sponsored by their government. They will get a chance to see the children through a whole school year. No doubt an experience which will benefit both volunteer and students.


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Cameroon Experience – Polling day

Monday 30th September 2013

It Election Day here today, which is also a bank holiday. Everything is closed. I’ve never known the place as quiet – not even on Sundays as most places are open on Sundays.

We’ve been advised to stay indoors because of possible over-zealous military and police officials who are out in force today to ensure peace is maintained. It’s incredibly unfortunate that the Calor gas choose today to run out as there’s nowhere where we can buy another. Even more unfortunate because three of the volunteers leave tomorrow and were hoping to cook a big meal  tonight as our movement is restricted.

This enforced inactivity has given me the opportunity to catch up on a few administrative tasks. I’ll be finishing the story I began for the three forms I’m doing creative writing with. I’ll also be able to do some long overdue editing. I haven’t even completed one story yet – only six pages edited so far.

Chima washing shoes

Chima washing shoes

It seems many people are also catching up on some jobs. Chima is cleaning shoes. Washing them is a more accurate description. Seems its the most effective way to remove the encrusted mud. He offered to wash mine for me. I didn’t hesitate too long in accepting.

The bright hot sun of a few minutes ago has just given way to a heavy downpour. As I’m sitting on the verandah I’m able to observe people setting buckets out to catch water, and they, like me have rushed to bring in their washing.

The downpour was short – the sun is out again, but the soil is so saturated that there are little rivulets running down the hill – the same hill I fell down yesterday. Serves me right for drinking beer at 10.30 in the morning.

I’m now on line in my own right. I bought an internet dongle from CAMTEL, the local internet provider. Contrary to the advise that I’d be able to purchase 100 hours for 5000 franks, the truth was that the dongle cost £15,000F and even with the special promotion for teachers I only got 20 hours included in the price. The higher rate only applies if you already have a dongle.

It was the second time in an hour that I had to face an unexpected price hike. I paid 1000F for a sim card a few days earlier on the understanding that it had credit on it. The phone refused to work, not allowing me to send messages – receiving was fine, but it would not facilitate outgoing messages or calls.

Chima and I took it back to the man we bought it from, who suggested that we take it back to the main office in Squares and complain to them, or buy some credit for 500F. My sense of injustice kicked in as I argued that if the sim wes faulty and I’d bought it from him then it was his responsibility to replace it. He said that may be how it is where I lived but here in Cameroon if the sim is faulty it’s up to me to take it back. I could feel myself becoming incensed.

Immaculate and Chima

Immaculate and Chima

A woman who overheard us said the way it worked is that I have to buy 500F of credit to access the bonus credits on the 1000F sim.

There was a split second when I realised that I was arguing over the equivalent of 80 English pence and my sense of proportion kicked in. I bought the extra credits.

‘You look as though you’re still doubting me,’ the salesman said as I walked away.

‘Guess I am,’ I admitted.

Anyway, as a result of the time Chima was prepared to spend guiding me around I now have a local phone and internet connection.

2013-09-26 19.28.14We met the lady who is responsible for making me some beautiful garments in local materials. Immaculate came with us for a late lunch. If we hadn’t been late I would have been able to have the mashed yams which were on special offer earlier. I would have happily settled for the plantains and beans but Chima thought it would be good to try something new and ordered the water fufu with eru for me.

Water fufu is a cassava abased dish which no longer taste of cassava because it’s been processed into tastelessness. There was therefore nothing to detract from overly salty green vegetable eru served in a side dish. At the risk of being offensive it tasted to me like baby’s vomit smells, and the heaps of pepper I loaded it with did little to improve the taste. It isn’t often I leave food, but I had to pass on that one.

Saturday I went to the market for the first time by myself. It was a leisurely experience and I was able to take in much more that when I’d been previously dashing around with a guide.

Live chickens at market

Live chickens at market

I hadn’t noticed before the chickens brought to market still alive. There are so few refrigerators here that people buy their meet fresh to use that day, or alive if they want to use it on another day.

I had some interesting conversations about herbal versus traditional medicines, and Christianity versus traditional religion, but that’s for another blog.

Three of the volunteers leave tomorrow and three more will replace them. I’m quite excited to meet the new ones. I’ll no longer be the newest on in the house.


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Cameroon Experience – End of the school week

Saturday 28th September 2013

School children on the way home at the end of the week

School children on the way home at the end of the week

I’ve done a complete week at the school. I’d forgotten how exhausting teaching can be – and I’m not even doing a full time-table.

When the other volunteer teacher and I arrived all the children were in lines in the yard and one of the prefects was addressing them.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked her.

‘It’s just assembly,’ she replied, ‘they have it every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.’

‘Oh. It’s the first of these mornings I’ve been here.’

As the prefect was winding up he asked us, the teachers, if we had anything to say to the school. My colleague asked if she could take pictures and I seized the opportunity to tell them how welcomed the school had made me feel in my first week. As I’d now had a chance to teach all the classes I was happy to report that all had worked well in my lessons and had produced some good work.

I thanked them again for my new name of Bongkiyung and for their assistance in helping me to live up to it. I was indeed a fool learning a lot.

My first lesson was with form 2 and I was surprised to find that five of them were missing. They were outside sweeping the yard as punishment for a previous misdemeanour. I was alarmed and went outside to talk to the prefect, to ask if they could do their punishment in the break when they would not be missing part of the lesson.

He could understand my rationale about not wishing to begin the lesson again when they joined the class, but it was the rule and they had to do their punishment.

I decided to respect the rule, and indeed had to begin the lesson again for the five who joined the class ten minutes late.

There was a Lambso (the local language) lesson going on next door with class 1 and I encountered the same issue of noise as I did the first time. The dividing wall between the classrooms is a plywood screen and may just as well not have been there. It was an oral class and I really struggled to make myself heard during whole class repetitions – which were frequent.

It was a real credit to class 2 that they not only worked hard, but produced some good work. I’d forgotten to take the animal cards I’d intended to use with them so asked them instead to think of their own animal and we did a lesson on characterisation in preparation for writing a story next week.

I even managed to fit in a couple of affirmations by asking them to repeat with me ‘I am creative. I am very creative.’

Some of them were a little sceptical at first, especially as I’d explained what it means to be creative, i.e. to bring something into the world that had not existed before. But when they saw the gusto with which I approached the affirmations, and the ease with which some of the others did it, they joined in. I stopped them periodically to re-affirm their creativity.

There was a direct swop to form 1 at the end of an hour, with the noise coming from class 2 as the Lambso teacher launched them into the national anthem and other songs. I felt despondent. How was I expected to teach in these conditions?

These are the only classes in which I have to shout. Not because the children are talking or disruptive, but because it’s the only way they can hear me.

I discovered that one young man who had been extremely resistive to working in the previous lesson couldn’t spell, or read from the board properly. Once I gave him, and the others permission to raise their hands and to ask for me to spell the words they couldn’t, the level of talking dropped considerably. It realised that most of them were asking each other how to spell words.

The surly disruptive young man of the previous lesson managed to complete his work and was enormously pleased with himself. I was exceptionally pleased to note that some of them stayed in during the break to catch up with those who were ahead.

At the end of the lesson I read them the beginning of the story I’ve been writing about a buffalo called Abundance. A by product of teaching creative writing to younger children is that it’s forcing me to write for children. They’re very keen to get going on their own stories.

At the break the cleaning monitors got buckets of water and floor cloths ready to clean the floors of their classrooms. It’s the students’ responsibility to keep the school clean, and even to help out with some of the building work where appropriate. Imagine that happening in the UK!!


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Cameroon Experience – Lightening up

Thursday 26th September 2013

I arrived a week ago today. A few days ago this place was very bewildering. It’s still bewildering despite the many people I’ve met and the things I’ve done.

Children at the SEREP school

Children at the SEREP school

I’ve now met all the classes at the school. Ages range from 12 – 23 years. After school on Tuesday I was very depressed. It was the day I taught Form 1 and couldn’t hear myself or the children because the teacher and the students in the form next door were so noisy.

This was not unruly noise, just the exuberant noise of a class enjoying the subject and teacher and children being expressive.

The difficultly was that there is no proper dividing wall between the classes. It’s just a screen. When the two classes are running the quieter of the two suffers.

I was also timetabled to teach this class for two hours. These are 12-14 year olds who are expected to sit and be attentive for two hours at a time. Fortunately I was doing practical things with them – creative writing. I had pitched the exercises way too high (compared to British standards) and many of them were confused. After a slight restructuring they were better able to cope.

I’m using the same exercises for Forms 1-3 all 12-16 year olds. I had a better grasp of it by the time I taught it to Form 3 yesterday.

The difficulty they are experiencing is that only English grammar is taught. Almost all of the subjects are factual and delivered in a ‘chalk and talk’ manner, how it used to be so many years ago in Britain.

What was depressing was that I know they are doing the best that they can with very limited resources, but it seems so woefully inadequate. Even if the building is brought up to scratch and each class has a classroom of its own there is still the issue of teaching style and consistency of teachers.

The school relies heavily on volunteers. This morning, for instance, the only three teachers for the first session were volunteers, two of whom are young and not trained as teachers. Their level of commitment is amazing, but they question their efficacy.

In my own classes my biggest challenge is trying to get the children to think creatively. They are so used to being told what to do, how to do it and to get right or wrong answers that they are afraid to express themselves imaginatively.

Council House - Tobin - Kumbo

Council House – Tobin – Kumbo

Also on Tuesday as a result of delays I was unable to register my document with the police as we were too late getting there and the office was closed.

It had been a particularly wet day and my thin raincoat had barely stood up to the constant drumming of the rain. Yet, I will now have to make this journey again as it is a legal requirement that my papers are registered, and even more so with the impending elections on Monday.

We have been warned not to travel outside of our district as many soldiers and extra police officers have been drafted in to monitor the streets and to quell any disquiet if it arises.

‘It is unlikely,’ the director said in our meeting on Monday night, ‘but please take the precaution of staying close to home as there may be the odd over-zealous official who is looking for some means of exercising his powers.’

By the end of Tuesday it felt like I was carrying weight of Cameroon’s problems on my shoulders. I wanted to go out and show them that there’s a better way, that it doesn’t have to take four people in the supermarket to sell you one item. That by getting to places on time you waste less time and are able to do more things.

By today, after a good rest and some reflection, I realised that I’m not here to change anything. I’m here to do what I can, to learn as much as I can, and if something changes as a result of me being here that’s a bonus.

My card today was the humming bird, which means ‘lighten-up.’ In the spirit of the card I’m going to collect some garments being made for me in African fabrics. I’m going to stop stressing about how messy the house is, about how long everything takes and about setting Cameroon to rights.

I’ve finished work for the day. I’m going to lighten up.