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March 16, 2008 – Mama Sharon Hansen’s 1st Blog
Today is Sunday and tomorrow it will be just a week since my arrival in Africa, yet I feel a lifetime has passed in the experiences of these past few days. I scarcely know where to begin, but I guess at the beginning...
We arrived two hours late from Paris at about 9:30 PM on Monday March the 10th. The airport is small for a city of a million and a half people, very "primitive" - a word I will use often to mean very minimalist, basic, and lacking in any sort of frills. The walls were bare, the floor some sort of non-descript tile squares, the windows dirty, the paint chipped. The officials were surprisingly efficient and we moved thru passport check, etc very quickly from 3 lines...when it was my turn at the window to check my passport, I understood why - the bored official took my passport and stamped it without even glancing up to see if the pictures matched! And away we went to the usual clutter of baggage claim...one carousel, young men everywhere offering to help us load our bags, a noisy din in a small area. We found our bags and started toward the exit when I looked up and saw the face I knew from Ryan's DVD - it was John and his big grin with Hanna right behind him. We were home. The African night was soft with a faint scent of some sort of flower, warm but not unpleasantly so. We piled all of our gear into the ancient, beat -up Toyota 4 door and I had my first experience of Yaounde driving...probably 6 "lanes" of traffic all trying to exit a narrow passage to pay the parking fee to a guard. No order, no waiting for the guy ahead of you, no taking turns - just every man for himself, almost running into each other until someone would gain an edge of an inch and "win" his space. Bumper to bumper, horns honking - complete madness and yet it seems to work...there are no traffic lanes here, traffic moves as it does in the states, meaning they drive on the right as we do, but the similarity ends there. No traffic signals, no printed lanes on the road, no speed signs, no "exit" lanes or "merging" lanes - sometimes there are 2 cars abreast moving in the same direction, in the next second there may be 3! Add a smoking motorcycle buzzing by and there are now 4! And always the most aggressive guy wins. There are no speeders - everyone drives at 90 miles an hour! Entering an intersection to make a left hand turn is a life-changing experience. Edge over, edge over, worm your way into the intersection inch by inch and when your opponent weakens and slows imperceptibly, hit the gas and speed thru! Victory! Then add pedestrians trying to cross, beggars reaching out their plastic bowls to your open window or children trying to sell you something from trays they carry as traffic slows a bit, taxis swerving to the curb to pick up a fare and then speeding up to re-enter the traffic flow...driving here is always an adventure and to see John or Ryan driving calmly in this madness is awe-inspiring. Some of you ( Laura, especially, remembering me tearing around in the Jag scaring 10 years off her life) may think I would fit right in here with my driving style, but I wouldn't drive here for anything. My reflexes aren't fast enough! And my courage is very lacking!
Ryan says that Yaounde is one giant slum but that is an understatement...the "slums" of Harlem or LA are paradise compared to here. The streets are narrow ( except for vast boulevards in the city proper with giant roundabouts holding 6 cars abreast) and have no sidewalks, are lined with shack after shack - each measuring about 10X10, some are actually those giant boxcar things that fit onto trucks and trains. These are homes and shops and many people live in just that small space...adults, children...and there are tables by the hundreds lining every road with beach-type umbrellas over them to keep the equatorial sun from their heads...they all have a sign with the number 100 written on it; they are sitting there all day hoping someone will stop to use their cell phone and pay them the 100 Cameroon francs they charge. Endless vendors roam the streets carrying everything from suitcases, winter coats (yes, they sell here! If it gets below 1000 degrees they say it is cold and wear coats!), cored, sliced pineapples, candy, tennis shoes (they carry one on their head so customers will know their merchandise is tennis shoes), socks on carts, folded bolts of cloth, plastic buckets with sodas or beignets, suits, dresses...the variety of merchandise they carry around all day in the hot sun is endless. Most carry burdens on their heads...it is not unusual to see someone with three buckets balanced one on top of the other on their head, walking along at a casual pace. Roadside stands have huge bunches of bananas, piles of mangos, loaves of bread...it is quite a sight as we speed along. Despite all the traffic, everyone here walks everywhere or they take taxis...more on the taxis later.
It feels like LA in the summer most of the time...humid but with a cooling breeze. There have been two ferocious thunderstorms this week - monsoon type rain, howling winds, lightning - the clouds build all day, it gets more and more humid and then the show begins. One storm lasted about 4 hours, the one today only about 2. Then it passes and the air is clean and cool. And we clean up the pools of water, the ripped curtains, the debris in the yard...put the dog back out (her name is Wilma) and resume life. Nature at her most spectacular for sure.
The orphanage itself is in one of the "better" parts of town...sort of the second best area of Yaounde. The best area is where all the diplomats live. And while the homes there are large, they aren't even as nice as Wingfield Springs. High walls and gated, of course. Moorish in appearance, actually, but very minimalist, not luxurious as we would define it. But their streets are paved...
Imagine the worst washed out riverbed road in Virginia City you have driven your 4 wheel on and that is about what Ryan's street is like. Huge mounds, gullies, rocks...of course, there are no city services, so after the rains have washed out even more gullies and ruts, the citizens fill the largest potholes with whatever is at hand - blocks of concrete, today we passed some men putting broken pieces of a tile floor into the "roadbed" to fill some huge holes. Again, it seems to work sort of okay. We drive slowly - ever so slowly maneuvering up, over and around...the little Toyota has no shocks, needless to say. And how the tires don't go flat I don't know. (Since writing this, we have had a flat tire which John expertly changed.)
The "street" is lined with gated compounds, all locked with a guard sitting in front of most of the homes. We pulled up to a maroon colored metal gate and John honked the horn. The gate swung open and we pulled in. There are no street names or house numbers here - it's very interesting telling someone where you live and how to get there. Access is just by doing that...you pull up and honk. Each home knows its own horn sound and I have now learned not to run to the gate every time I hear a honk. I even know the neighbor's horns now! People arriving by taxi or on foot ring a bell which is heard loudly thru the house. Someone then (usually John) goes to the gate and unlocks it.
The compound is about the size of a small city lot with 12 foot beige concrete walls surrounding it. It is a bit claustrophobic, to say the least. The front yard has some shrubs and a bit of grass, some sort of vine covering 2 of the high walls, a concrete driveway, a porch and a large veranda on the second floor where the psycho cat Sally lives (are all cats psycho???). Along the side of the house is a narrow concrete corridor with a deep divided concrete tub where a woman comes three times a week to wash clothes and where the larger pots and pans from the kitchen are also washed, a clothesline and the garbage tubs. Entry into the house is thru an outdoor room where the table sits for meals and homework...much of the house's activity takes place out here. Then into a primitive kitchen - more on this also later. On the first floor are a large living room, the children's study room, Hanna's room, a storage/guest room where I am staying and a bathroom. Up the stairs to Ryan's room, 3 more bedrooms for the children, 3 bathrooms and a large studio used for the children's dance lessons with the dancers from the Cameroon National Ballet Company each week. The veranda has chairs and the breeze is best here. And also the view of smoky Yaounde and the neighbors' rooftops and yards. Looking out over the expanse that is Yaounde is not what I thought...it is always grey and overcast and the smoky pall of pollution hovers constantly. Even the rain does not dissipate it...of course, there are no emission standards, every car belches smoke and trash is burning everywhere. My throat burns as we drive in town and my eyes sting after awhile, too.
The house is furnished sparingly - spartan is the correct term. Even basic "luxuries" we expect are missing. No shower curtains or towel racks, for example. No bedspreads or comforters, no shelves anywhere, no rugs on the floors, no decorations or pictures, (Ryan does have posters up everywhere) no lamps - all the house lighting is overhead flourescent, which is very hard on the eyes. The floors are all tile, the ceilings are high to keep the house cool, chairs are the plastic kind like we have in our back yards ( most with broken backs), the table in the "foyer" has unmatched benches... the walls are clean, the floors have many eroded areas, the kitchen floor in particular is atrocious and should be replaced, the windows are large with adjustable louvers to allow for air flow...it is an old house but very adequate for the number of people living here. Anything smaller would not do. But it is primitive, very clean by African standards and life flows comfortably within these walls. But it is not comfortable by American standards...for example, the couches in the living room are wooden frames with fabric stretched on them. I didn't know there was no "cushion" on the couch and I sat down with a plunk and hurt my tailbone. The plumbing is barely adequate...Ira, we need you here!!!!! (Note: Ryan's brother Ira is a plumbing contractor)
And yet, in all its simplicity, there is a joy here in the happy voices of these children, their laughter and singing. John is an unfailingly cheerful presence, busy constantly cleaning or picking up...it is evident he feels a sense of proprietorship for this home and its occupants. The new supervisor, Adrienne, fills the house with good cooking smells as she works in the kitchen, often singing, chastising the children as they do their chores and there is a feeling of peace. No noisy television, no jangling telephone ringing, no radio blaring...there are none of these "conveniences" here and much more talking, sharing, working together, and conversation than in our American homes. The biggest interruptions are when the doorbell rings and a visitor is announced...today it is Sandrine come back to visit. Last evening it was Nanette from the American military bringing a belated birthday cake and gift to Janine, yesterday afternoon it was Adrianna's grandmother and cousin. In America we don't "visit" home to home as they do here. This society is so much more interactive, so much more people focused, much less activity focused than in America. Here there is no soccer practice, no running to guitar lessons or "play groups" - the children leave for school at 6:45 AM and return around 3, the main meal of the day is served at 3:30 or 4, then chores (all the usual chores - dishes, floor sweeping, garbage emptying etc. plus the laundry is done by hand) and homework, free time, a smaller meal around 7:30, final chores and then bed at 9. It is a simple, well organized routine and the children are learning security and order, safety and love. They are truly a family, down to the squabbles between them at times. They are at last having a childhood...
March 18, 2008 – Mama Sharon Hansen’s 2nd Blog
The day we arrived 14 year-old Falonne had been taken to the hospital for a transfusion secondary to malarial anemia and worms. She was lethargic, weak, sleepy and ghostly pale. My nursing instincts kicked in, I assessed her, reviewed her meds and discussed her plan of care with Ryan. She stayed home from school for the next four days, slept as much as I could make her and we reviewed her diet to increase her iron stores. I made her spinach omelets. egg nogs, had her snack on raisins and she slowly has perked up. I proceeded to assess all the children; Janine and Adrianna had complained of chronic stomach pains, all the children are very thin and I found them all to have worms. In light of African hygiene, there is no way to keep them worm-free so I have initiated a quarterly Vermox regimen to keep them as close to worm free as possible. Janine needs an eye exam - she complains of her eyes burning alot and I think it's eyestrain and she needs glasses. I would like to see them all take vitamins daily since their diet is minimalist - I am making some recommendations there, too. Overall, they seem a healthy lot with plenty of energy and vitality. Also the day we arrived Ryan came down with what at first we thought was his recurring malaria but after 3 days when the anti-malarial pills didn't work, we decided it wasn't malaria even though the symptoms were typical - fever of 101, shaking chills, horrible sweating, nausea...so I decided to put him on Cipro for possible dengue fever or even influenza and after 2 more days he improved, although as of this writing he is still not 100% and is sleeping as I sit at his computer to write this. We tried to be seen at his local clinic but they were closed so I just took matters into my own hands, thinking that while I may not be able to diagnose his ailment, the treatment would be the same no matter what it is. And he is improving slowly...
Food here is primitive in nature, very simple and lacking in variety and complexity. Adrienne makes a large pot of something each day on the propane gas fueled stove...a chicken stew, boiled plantains (sort of a cross between a banana and a sweet potato), today it will be some sort of fish, last night we had a rice dish with bits of carrot and vegetables in it, the day before a creamed vegetable dish called ndole ( pronounced on-dough-lay), which Ryan loves but I found to be bitter, another day meatballs in a fresh tomato sauce with bits of onion and pepper. She is a good cook and everything is prepared completely from scratch with primitive tools...no blender, no chopping tools, no whisks or rubber spatulas, the huge iron pots are heavy and wonderful - of course, no electric frypan to fry the plantains, she does a good job with what she has. No kitchen table or chair - she squats on a small stool and peels or chops into a large tub at her feet, usually outside while she chats with John. And that is the meal. It is actually supposed to last for 2 meals - this main one and then the smaller one again at 7ish so portions are small. No salad, no bread, never a dessert, no "side" dishes...water is the drink of choice...no juices, no soda, one glass of milk a day ( powdered) at breakfast. Breakfast is the milk with two sugar cubes in it and a roll with margarine from a tub. They pack another roll with Nutella on it as a "lunch" snack to take to school - no hot lunch at school, of course. An orange is a treat, or a fresh mango - twice in this week only did I see them have fruit. I made them a tuna salad over the weekend when Adrienne is off and the tuna reminded me of cat food in it's appearance, smell and texture. I added lots of fresh tomatoes and lettuce, the mayonnaise here is close to ours so it was a pretty good salad. Another meal they loved and asked Mama Sharon to make again was plain old pancakes...real butter ( you all know me and my butter!) and syrup with a fried egg for each of them...they ate until they were full and satisfied. We've had pancakes twice now and several times I've scrambled some eggs or made omelets...so one of my tasks before I leave is to revamp their meals to bring their nutrition status up - more fresh green veggies, more milk, more fruit...
One surprise is how expensive everything is here - prices are the same as in the States for almost everything but our dollar is weak and money doesn't stretch as far, thus Ryan buys the cheapest of everything he can find - toilet paper, etc...but at the same time the street vendors sell a shirt for a dollar. Today I saw a vendor with heavy velour bathrobes for sale! A simple meal for two in a European style cafe runs $40 for lunch, so eating out is not ever an option. We took the children to a simple small cafe as a treat (they have $2 omelets and we wanted to celebrate Daniel joining our family here) since they never get to go "out"...Ryan laughed his head off at me when I asked him if they took Visa so I could pay for the meal - I just lost my head for a minute there. There is NO fast food, no JC Penny or Wal Mart, no movies, no shops to buy a new dress, no Baskin Robbins, NOTHING. Street after street with pharmacies, bars, copy centers, internet cafes, some small businesses selling tile or junk, government offices in walled compounds with long lines of people patiently standing in the hot sun, gas stations, tire stores, the rows of shacks and umbrellas I described before but no Western style "stores" like Mervyns or Albertsons in this huge metropolis. There are grocery stores, small usually and incomplete...the Indian run store where Ryan receives a discount has staples, a few sundries but no produce or meat. The store with lots of produce and meat had very few groceries. So "shopping" is never easy or fast...every excursion we have taken involves hours of horrible traffic, slow service, many stops...Ryan had to have a document copied and printed from his computer so we went to an internet cafe since he doesn't have a printer at the house. First you find a place to park - we were lucky and pulled right into a spot - go to a window and stand in line, pay your fee, then go around to the back of the "office" where the computers are, wait for an employee to direct you to the appropriate computer, hope to heck it is working, wait for him to set you up, then connect and do your thing, walk back around to the "office" to retrieve your document, hoping the printer is working properly, walk back around to the computer area again, shut down your computer and then leave. Head back into the traffic and on to the next stop, the pharmacy to buy the Vermox, then to a store for some red meat for Falonne, then to the "supermarket" for a few staples, another stop at a ATM to replenish my cash since they don't take Visa (smile), on to the gas station for gas and a nice surprise. There was an attendant who pumped the gas for us, waved us in to an empty pump and filled us up - no oil check or windshield wipe, of course, but how nice to have the gas pumped just like in 1950's America!
Each day brings a new adventure...yesterday we went to the Japanese Embassy and met with a tiny Japanese doll named Maiko who has arranged to have their Embassy purchase a minibus for the orphanage. On Wednesday there will be a ceremony to hand Ryan a check and it is going to be a Big Deal with their Ambassador making a speech, many diplomats are expected, some dignitaries, the press, friends of the orphanage, American military people, quite the event. The children will be dressed to the nines, they will do an African dance, the Japanese Ambassador will have an escort with full formality...and the minibus is a Mitsubishi 15 passenger van, brand new, air conditioned, with shocks! Today we took another hot hour long ride thru Yaounde traffic to the Mitsubishi dealership to finalize the deal...the actual car is in Douala and so it will be next week before Ryan actually takes possession, but, how wonderful it is going to be. No more taxis in the morning and afternoon for school, no more jamming all the children into the tiny Toyota to go to church...it will make life so much nicer for everyone. Plus it will eliminate harassment for Ryan on the streets - the Japanese want their logo on the side of the van saying something like " a gift from the people of Japan to the children of Cameroon" or whatever so no crummy policeman will mess with them like they do now when they see white people in a beat-up Toyota.
And speaking of taxis... there must be 10,000 little four door junky yellow taxis in Yaounde...they zip in and out of traffic like busy bees and honk madly. People wanting a ride hold out their hand, the taxi swerves over to them, they climb in and away they go. The driver stops again and again until the car is full...probably 6 or 7 people in a car built to hold 4 so it is kind of like a ferris wheel ride, some get on and some get off and then you get to ride a bit. If you want the taxi to yourself you have to pay extra...they are the most aggressive drivers of all and use their horns to warn you - watch out, I'm comin' in! Currently we have a taxi driver who comes for the children every morning for school at 6:45 AM and then brings them back home again at 3. Having the mini-bus will save that money but the extra gasoline will eat up any savings. The Mitsubishi dealership is handling the car registration fees - a huge deal here in both time and money. Everyone has been so completely kind to us everywhere we go - Ryan says it is because of me...older women are respected and deferred to here and seeing him with his old mother softens everyone's hearts. Awwwwwwwwww.
The kids are home now so time to go give hugs and kisses and talk about their day and get chores going...more later! :)
March 20, 2008 – Mama Sharon Hansen’s 3rd Blog
The ants are tiny and they bite, the cockroaches are huge and they don't. Bats come out in swarms at evening, there is an owl who swoops over every night and a family of gorgeous lizards residing here. They are about eight inches long, have orange heads and tails, a cobalt blue body and one is especially fond of Ryan. Every time he sits out on the second floor veranda, the lizard appears on the ledge, bobbing his head up and down- Ryan says he's doing his push-ups - and sits and just watches Ryan the whole time. They run up and down vertical walls with aplomb...there are also regular geckos, lots of little scurrying bugs and mosquitoes, of course. I am using my DEET, taking my anti-malarial and sleep in my net cocoon every night. I have been bitten, the bites itch for a bit and quickly disappear. I have had no health problems while here, I drink bottled water, no "traveler's complaint", I sleep like a rock except when the massive thunderstorms hit as they have the last 2 nights about 3 AM and wake me up with pounding rain, reverberating thunder, and constant lightning flashes. Yesterday we had two such storms, one around 4 and then the one during the night. I have rarely seen such rainfall - it flies in all directions and an umbrella is useless, the wind whips and everyone stays calm...this is the norm here almost every day during the rainy season which supposedly this is not...at home we would all be out on the front porch saying...wow..This morning when we went onto the veranda, the curtains were torn, a glass container had been shattered, water was pooled everywhere, and this is the "norm" for storms here...
Everyone needs to see the newest DVD to fully understand what I am seeing and what I am saying. At the close of the DVD a crippled boy named Daniel has walked on his crutches across the city and arrives at New Hope drenched in sweat...someone in a taxi told him there was a white man who takes care of children in this area, so Daniel went door-to-door until he found Ryan. He has visited often since that day and this weekend Ryan arranged for him to stay so he could determine if Daniel would fit in here and if it would work to have him move in. It was a grand weekend for Daniel - he and Falonne are in the same grade and he was so very happy, Ryan decided to add him to the New Hope family. Daniel has severe neurological deficits due to cerebral malaria when he was three but is bright and intelligent. So his "uncle" or whomever this custodial person is came and signed papers for us to have Daniel. Adrienne knows where he lives and told Ryan his living conditions were atrocious, he was neglected and mistreated, starved and beaten - the "uncle" proudly boasted of this as his way of "properly" raising Daniel. Handicapped people in Yaounde are usually considered to be "witches" and are kept behind closed walls - Daniel had never been anywhere and he went to church with us, to the little cafe for an omelet...the city has built a new park close by and Daniel insisted on walking thru it, even though walking is painful for him, declaring this was paradise...he was completely in awe of the trees and grass and little stream running thru it... he didn't want to leave but Ryan assured him we would return. To Daniel it was Disneyland...just a silly little park. We went for ice cream and Daniel preferred a bag of M&Ms - he has never tasted ice cream and was afraid. He is trying to find his place here and spends most of his time studying - writing is very difficult for him, he has a sort of palsy, but it is the one thing he knows how to do and has in common with the other children...he also knows how Ryan values education so he studies all the time. Ryan had the children making pictures for the Japanese Ambassador for the ceremony to hand over the check for the new minibus the Japanese Embassy is providing us and Daniel said he couldn't do it because he "had to study". It turns out he had never colored before, didn't know what crayons were and was again afraid of the unknown. He is stick thin and wears a constant grin, has a good sense of humor and is a beautiful child. Ryan is talking with the Shriners to see if anything medical can be done to help Daniel. And we are looking for a wheelchair so he can more easily go on outings. And so our family grows...
Ryan mentioned "drama" - Cyril came home from school and reported to Adrienne that he had been beaten over some infraction...when she lifted his shirt, his back was covered in black bruises from a thick stick whose outline could be seen all across his shoulder blades and along his lower back. The bruises were tender to the touch and I was horrified, but was told this is the "norm" here. The children attend a privately owned school - supposed to be one of the "better" schools in Yaounde - but even there children are brutalized. Falonne says it happens all the time to teenage girls in her school. So Ryan took pictures of Cyril's back and is going to the school owner, who is not Cameroonian, and make sure this never happens again to any of our children. Seeing children in rags picking thru garbage bins or weaving thru heavy traffic to sell trinkets or gum is painful for me...children here are not cherished, they are exploited to benefit adults. Their future is so bleak with no opportunities for employment or improvement...a "good" salary here is about $200 a month - with prices so high, how can they live? That's why they only have shacks, live two families to a 10X10 room, send the children out to beg, steal what they can, drink heavily and resent the village people pouring intoYaounde daily because of even worse conditions in their villages. The government is completely corrupt, I passed the governors wife's palace and was appalled at the decadence flaunted in the face of people like Adrianna's emaciated grandmother who starves herself to feed her grandchildren the basest sort of food like the disgusting manioc root most of the poor live on. Driving thru Yaounde I can feel the despair of the people, the restless energy waiting to explode in anger as gas and food prices rise and rise to feed the greed of the rulers here. I have discussed emergency preparedness with Ryan - evacuation plans and food storage for WHEN, not if, more civil unrest breaks out. He is in frequent contact with the American military and has ready contacts and help...yesterday I met Chris Wilson from the military and tearfully hugged him and thanked him for his watchful care over New Hope and my son. It does help to relieve my mind somewhat knowing the volatility of the situation here. The Cameroonians have no hope, no voice, no future and their frustration will explode.
And yet they are a beautiful people - their carriage is regal, they have a pride in the way they bear themselves...all the women have nicely done hair and headscarves or turbans, their clothing is almost always clean and colorful...on the same street you will see women in business suits and then also the long flowing muu-muu type dress most of the older women wear. Modesty is the norm and shoes are elegant, the men carry briefcases and wear suits, or shirts and nice trousers in the business areas of the city. At our social events here at New Hope, some Cameroonian women were dressed to the nine and the only inappropriate dressing was from Americans! We are the slobs everywhere...tank tops and grubby shorts and I can always spot the American in any crowd. I am ashamed at the lack of respect for the Cameroonian cultural norm of looking nice when out in public. Even in the poorest areas the women were fixed up to go and buy their manioc root at the local market stand. Everywhere Ryan and I have gone we have been treated well - even by people who had formerly been rude to Ryan. He was puzzled but I think one reason is that I am dressed nicely with earrings and my new African necklace, my makeup is on, my hair is arranged, not in some sloppy ponytail, I am wearing cologne, I am an older woman and I make a point of making eye contact, smiling and saying "Bonjour" to everyone I come into contact with - the parking attendant, the cashier at the store, the washerwoman here at New Hope. I always receive a smile in return and even some special treatment. A cashier at the local market Ryan has had fairly frequent contact with and who has usually been rude to him, was smiling and nice to me and even opened my bottle of Coke..." just for you" she said to me with a smile as she dug thru her drawer to find an opener. I guess drinking an open container on the premises is not to be done but I was dying of thirst and she took pity on me...and our newest friend Clovis from the local "Home Depot" type store where we bought the swing for the yard - we had to go upstairs in the store to look at some furniture for New Hope and I was a bit slow...Ryan told Clovis I had broken my hip a year ago and Clovis immediately took my hand and helped me up the two flights of stairs very tenderly. He then came home with us to reassemble the swing, we tipped him and paid for his taxi back and invited Clovis to the documentary screening, he was helpful in getting some furniture for us - even John was impressed with his honesty and helpfulness...he is in his twenties, reminds me of Dan the Man and he came to the screening and brought his girlfriend. Then he called Ryan to see when I am going home to make an appointment to bring me a "present", so tonight at 6:30, Clovis is coming over. He is just an average Joe, but seems a very decent young man and is an excellent contact at the store when Ryan needs paint or tools or whatever "Home Depot" type merchandise New Hope may need. Ryan has been consistently surprised at the positive response to me. Another factor is seeing a mother and her son together...Ryan holds my hand when we cross a street - it is a bit dangerous for a slow old lady and a taxi brushed my skirt it passed so close on one crossing - and people smile at us. I can feel a respect for my age, a polite nod or Bonjour, a small smile...in the States I am ignored as an old fossil not worthy of even acknowledgment everywhere I go so this has been nice.
A bit about the people I have met...we have had two social events...the documentary screening and the reception for the Japanese Ambassador and his wife and staff... and as I mentioned before people just stop by to say hi...I was in my room doing something when there was a soft knock. I opened the door to two familiar faces...Sandrine holding Baby Grace's hand. There was a blissful reunion between Sandrine and the children, and a touching reunion between Ryan and Sandrine. She had come to Yaounde for prenatal care and has been here many times since that first day. She is quiet and gentle, went straight into the kitchen and started washing dishes, is helping with homework, spent the night when the storms prevented her leaving and seems happy to have reconnected with New Hope. She plans to go soon to a far province with her baby's father and then come back to Yaounde for her delivery and remain here after the birth finishing her schooling and finding work. She is a sweet, unassuming person and I like her very much. Honorine came with Baby Grace and she is a creature to be pitied. She just sat gazing at nothing with her sightless eyes, we fed her, I conversed with her a little but she isn't quite all there. And Grace is...just Grace. A delightful little devil, a princess spoiled by everyone here, an imp, a charmer, her giggle is infectious and she seems well. Her behavior was normal, her health is good, Sandrine has been keeping tabs on her, she is still under the care of her father Benjamin and we all feel a bit better after seeing her again. The children have a tutor, Julien, who comes 4 X a week for 2 hours in the evening. He is doing a great job in catching the children up to grade level and they are all advancing rapidly. He is also a kind, gentle man and I liked him, too. Momo and Happi from the Cameroon National Ballet Company come every Wednesday for a 2 hour dance lesson and I think I'm in love with Momo. They push the children to excel, they are so dedicated to their art and have come to all the social events and also will be here Friday for a lesson since this week's Wed lesson was usurped by Japan's event. Momo and Happi tend to focus more on modern interpretive dance and Danielle - a lovely, gracious ballerina, teaches more of the classical form. They are such a blessing for these children...one example...as part of their lesson last week, Momo and Happi were teaching about emoting thru dance and were running the children thru various emotions...anger, happiness, etc and when they got to sadness and anguish, Dodo had tears running down his little face. Momo took him in his arms, comforted him and used him as an example of how dance can help us deal with our inner pain. It was moving and very significant in helping Dodo to be able to confront his suppressed inner feelings from his abusive past. My heart was ripping from my chest it was so full...
Adrianna's grandmother has been here twice...Ryan had agreed to some medical care for Modeste when he was staying here that is being followed up with, so she came once with Modeste and once with another grandchild about 2 years old. We were having pancakes so the tot ate with us and grandma took some pancakes in a plastic bag for later, too. Just to have some crummy pancakes was such a treat...but I digress. This grandmother has lied repeatedly to Ryan and is completely unreliable but I have pity for her...what would I do to help my grandchildren in her circumstances? Would I lie and cheat to try to provide a better life for them? Yes, I would. Yes, I would. So my heart goes out to her desperate heart. When she leaves, Adriana has a hard time...she was sassing John and had to be sent to her room. Poor little tyke...she loves her grandmother, who took care of her for so long and is the only Mother she has ever known and she misses her. One funny aside - the toddler was terrified of Ryan and me...cried hysterically when we came close and clung to grandma. Her big brown eyes followed us everywhere. My goodness...my goal in my later life is to be presentable enough to not scare little children and am I failing??? Ha Ha!
Meeting Simone was a highlight. She is beautiful, cultured, smart, wise and I love her. She handles Ryan with deftness and humor. She is a fabulous role model for these girls and has a presence they can emulate. She is a gift from God, I have no doubt. She has kept Ryan alive and going on when times were so dark for him. If I am the children's fairy godmother, Simone is their guardian angel. Nanette is adorable and a big sister to the kids, Mike from the military (he's a Las Vegas boy!) is Mr. Tough Marine made of marshmallow inside. He recently had the portable speakers repaired for the kids at his cost and is providing desks for the schoolroom...and he provided the military intelligence reports during the recent violence that kept us all on top of things. I trust Mike and am so grateful for him. The Roth family, the Swaneys, we are going to High Tea with Vinny and Jill from England on Saturday, Felicity from the Internet company, a crazy blind man came to the gate yesterday - he has stopped by before and is about a quart low and leaking. He loves to come here and sit with the children and just be with people around him. He is desperately lonely and has no one. So big-hearted Ryan has made a friend of him and he comes by and made quite a fuss over meeting me. Sad man, one of thousands of sad people here.
One thing Ryan is instilling in these children is a sense of their privilege and the need to help those less fortunate...there is a center with 12 severely (some completely bedridden) handicapped children in Yaounde run by an American named Natalie, a very nice young woman doing a horrible job no one else will do (remember these children are "witches" ), and these children come here and are doted on by New Hope. The new minibus is also to help them get out of their prison more often and go on outings with our children. I met three of these precious people yesterday and they were sweet and happy to be part of the happenings here...one of them, a little Down's Syndrome boy, sat with the Ambassador's wife thru the entire ceremony just beaming...
So visitors are many - the Roth girls came by to play with the kids out of the blue, Felicity is expected any minute, the kids are home now and just told us there will be no school tomorrow - I guess teachers here take frequent "holidays"...so we are going to stay up late tonight and watch a movie - I wonder if there is popcorn anywhere in Yaounde? Adrienne has made some sort of chicken and rice dish...so yummy! So we'll all eat, everyone is well now - even Ryan again, thank goodness - and just be at home enjoying each other. A priceless moment - and they don't even take Visa! More later!
March 23, 2008 – Mama Sharon Hansen’s 4th Blog
I deserve it and I am going to have it! This is my P&M blog...enough of this Sally Sunshine Stuff! (Just kidding). But this is going to be The Reality Check with some of the challenges I have faced during my visit to Africa. Basically, imagine a lifetime of camping out with 12 people - that's the level of inconvenience I am experiencing and that Ryan lives with every day. We lost water once for about 18 hours, the power has gone out twice for hours both times, the plumbing is horrible - Patrick, if you think my slow-flow shower at home is something, try a shower with a literal trickle or no flow at all when the washerwoman is outside all day using the water at her concrete tub. With no shower curtain so the water is spilling all over the floor out of the little ledge surrounding the shower area. The faucets barely flow, and then only after turning the knobs 30 times. The kitchen faucet flow doesn't even hit the sink, but rather the ledge above it and indirectly flows into the sink, spilling all over the metal sideboards. There is hot water, however. But, of course one cannot drink water from the tap so there are two big coffee urn type containers that are filled each morning and evening for the children to drink from...turn the spigot and fill the cup, with spilling onto the floor underneath a given. Then walk around the kitchen and track dirty water everywhere...
The stove is propane and has to be lit each time you use it...turn on the propane from the tank at the side of the stove, look around for the butane lighter that is never in the same place, turn on the burner knob and wait for the whoosh that scares me each time. If I can find an older child, I ask one of them to do it for me I am such a chicken...I won't even try to light the oven! There are no bowls, one large serving size spoon, one plastic spatula, one pitcher, one ancient can opener, a bare minimum of silverware and glasses, no storage containers or Handi-Wrap, no foil, no dishtowels, no washcloths - they use sponges and soak them in bleach every now and then to clean them, the sinks (double) are shallow and small so the large pots are carted outside to the concrete tub to be washed so when I need a pot, off I go outside around the house to find one. No small pans, or even medium ones - just huge pots. One frying skillet, 2 beat up cake pans, many of the plates (mismatched plastic) are chipped, broken or cracked. Almost every small bowl I pick up leaks from small cracks...the refrigerator is small and inadequate...the doors of both the main compartment and the freezer have no handles so you have to pry them open by breaking the seal. Water collects under the vegetable tray at the bottom and spills out when you open the door, so ditto the walking in water again and the dirty floor. The floor is cracked, worn and chipped...it is ancient linoleum, a dark ochre color and peels around all the edges. There are no cabinets, everything is stored on open bin-type things and in one ancient wooden cabinet with a worn top and 2 small shelves. A wicker open shelved handmade free standing shelving unit stands next to the stove and holds oil, sugar cubes, flour, seasonings and miscellaneous "stuff" like the butane lighter. And that's just the kitchen...
I have pulled my mosquito net down around my head six times, I think. My feet get tangled in it, or when I swing my legs over the edge of the bed to get out, a foot catches and wham! Down it comes. Sigh. There is a definite art to sleeping under a mosquito net! And Ryan has patiently re-hung it for me, his idiot Mother. Karen Blixen I certainly am not! My room is small...it's the storage room and has no air flow so it's stuffy but Ryan has given me his large fan so I sleep to the hum of the fan enclosed in my cocoon. The house stays amazingly cool with its thick walls and high ceilings and there is usually a nice breeze flowing thru the louvered windows. But the humidity is high...I bought some crackers and pretzels and within minutes of opening them, they were soft. Sigh.
I am hot and sticky all the time. Thank goodness for Shower to Shower powder! But then I catch a breeze and am cool and "fresh" again for a bit. I have actually gotten very used to it and am not uncomfortable. And let's talk about the BO thing...yes, almost everyone here has an odor but it is not unpleasant - it is a smell of sweat but not the gross kind from unwashed Americans in smelly gyms. Again, I am used to it and it does not bother me at all. I expected far worse...a continent of unwashed Americans! Very different here...definitely not an unwashed American unpleasantness.
John had to go and pay the power bill...one doesn't just pop it into the mail. It is hand delivered each month here and has to be paid in person. So John went at 5AM to stand in line and jump thru the necessary hoops...he returned at 10:30 AM. Can you imagine????? Just to pay one bill. And speaking of dear, dear John...he received some tragic news that has shaken him badly. The uncle who raised him and was like a Father to him fell into a well and drowned in John's village in the North of Cameroon. And additional tragedy...the man's son tried to save him and drowned, too. So poor John has such a heavy heart but is continuing to fulfill all his duties and smile for the children. His older brother, who lives in Yaounde, too, is returning to the village to assume the responsibilities of the family. As an aside, I spoke of the Cameroonian standard of dressing nicely when out in public...when John took his brother to the train station for the 17 hour journey home, he wore a brand new shirt (the creases were still in it), the new baseball cap I gave him with the "Nevada - Battle Born" logo on it, his best shoes and nice pants. Just to put his brother on the train...imagine the Reno airport and all the slobs wandering around. There is a classiness in these people that we lack...
I have been hungry much of the time here - not so much now; I think my stomach has shrunk. So many of the basic items in our diet in America are lacking here - no cereal or bread for toast in the morning, the eggs are small with pale yolks and have no taste, no bacon or ham (pork is not big here, mostly chicken or beef), no juice, but I did splurge on a carton of grapefruit juice...about a quart for $4. And some yogurt which is $1 per small carton, about the size of one of the kid-size cartons in the states. Much thinner than ours, not as sweet and flavors are limited to pineapple and strawberry mostly. No sandwich fixings - lunchmeat, cheeses, etc. for lunch, no Campbell's soup or canned anything. One can of green beans is $2and there just isn't anything to buy that we would consider "normal" food...no peanut butter, no snacks or Spaghetti-Os or pork and beans or spaghetti sauce or even tomato sauce, nothing processed. No fresh cold milk, the milk here is kept on the shelf and is not refrigerated...in one of the larger markets I spotted a small bag of what looked like potato chips, which they were but no salt! And crunchy rather than crispy. Sigh. Ryan took pity on me when he saw thru my brave front after several days of being hungry and using up so many eggs for omelets with tomatoes.... So we went and splurged on the grapefruit juice and yogurt and I even stooped to buying 2 cans of Chef Boyardee Beefaroni, I was so desperate and it's all they had at this so-called "American " store. And some raisins for myself and Falonne, the pretzels and that was about it. Then he took me to a European-styled cafe where I had lemonade and a real salad with avocado and actual salad dressing! Ahhhhhhhhh. And for a real treat, Hanna, Ryan and I went out one evening to a restaurant and I had a small steak and some potatoes! Heaven! But I am trying...last night Adrienne grilled some small whole fish over a charcoal brazier - the WHOLE fish, eyeballs and all. So I simply smiled and went to the kitchen where I cut off the head and staring eyes and proceeded to be just fine. It was quite tasty and appetizing once the head wasn't looking back at me! This morning I had a yogurt for breakfast and we are on our way to buy beignets for the kids and to take as our contribution to a pot-luck the Americans at the US Embassy are having as part of an Easter egg hunt to which we have been invited later today. One disappointment is the bread here...with French influence I expected crispy french-type breads but the rolls are like sawdust if they are wheat and like air with no taste if they are white. I am probably not being fair, really, since Ryan buys the cheapest rolls imaginable...there is probably delicious bread available. Ryan's economy is mind-boggling...for the birthday presents for the kids I taped together old used birthday wrap and when it ran out we used newspaper for wrapping! He says - quite correctly, actually - that the fun is in the unwrapping, not the paper. I guess...
Last evening we were sitting in the yard when there was a burning smell and floating ashes coming into the yard. We investigated and found that neighbors were burning branches in the middle of the road outside the gate. What if someone had come down the road? Oh, well - I guess they would just back up and go another way...and no one even raised an eyebrow. When the trash collector comes down the street starting at 7AM, he blasts his horn every few houses - a very loud air-horn on his big garbage truck - so the inhabitants can bring out their trash. I could hear him most of the morning as he made his rounds. And the neighbor's dog howls all day from loneliness, I guess. All day. And speaking of dogs ( weren't we?), there are very few stray dogs...Ryan says they are eaten. Oh,my. This is definitely not a "pet" culture...no one keeps animals as pets. They can't afford to feed them and why would they anyway?
We were all loaded up to head out to the Easter egg hunt at the US Embassy and the car wouldn't start. The poor thing is dying, no doubt about it. The transmission is so weak we can barely make it up a hill and Yaounde is a hilly city, it sputters and sputters when it first starts and takes a few minutes to really decide to run at all, stalls at the drop of a hat...John took it in to be "fixed" yesterday but I see no improvement. Also it seems there was barely enough gas to start it - evidently the gauge is inaccurate so we sputtered to the closest gas station and that helped considerably. Starting out on a hill is tricky so I showed Ryan the old San Francisco trick of pulling on the emergency brake, putting in the clutch, putting the car in first gear, gunning the engine and slowly releasing the parking brake. It works and we have started successfully on several hills now using this method. That minibus from the Japanese is going to improve the quality of life to no end around here.
There is red dust all over everything, so "cleaning" has a whole different meaning here. There is no clutter and of course, no knicknacks to "dust" - it is basic survivalist cleaning. The "broom" is a bunch of long twigs tied together that is used like a scythe back and forth to clear away dirt with the user bent over at the waist...back breaking! No mops or pails, just rags used on the floors on hands and knees or on the feet, sponges on the toilets and sinks with a bleach solution made in an old spray bottle. Rubber gloves are worn for all cleaning and the rags are used over and over again on the floors, so I am encouraging a different style of "cleaning" and some different products to use. By African standards this place is shining clean. By American standards it is not. So I am trying to compromise and find a happy medium...I no longer worry about sweeping up all the little piles of "dirt" I keep finding...there are severe termites and this debris is from them and is all over the house. No problem. Smile.
Doing laundry by hand is some fun. Bend over the concrete tub, scrub away on the tile ledge surface using a brush, cold water, of course, a harsh detergent called OMO dissolved in the water with a few suds, double rinse, (no fabric softener, of course) wring and hang on the line using the very few clothespins available. Thank goodness I had the foresight to bring some when Ryan told me I would be doing hand washing. The clothes dry stiff but smell good from the open air. I brought few clothes with me anyway, and I just wear them repeatedly and wash them out every now and then for sanitary purposes. No problem. Smile.
There is no telephone service here so it is all cell phones and phone cards and today Ryan ran out of minutes so we couldn't call the hosts of the egg hunt to tell them we would be delayed because of the dumb car...everyone text messages or leaves e-mail messages so communication isn't convenient, either. You have to have your cell phone close by every minute, check the computer several times a day and it is common to miss communications. It has happened to Ryan quite a few times...either his cell phone was out of hearing range or the people he needed to talk to weren't available, or the internet was down - a frequent happening here so life doesn't flow as smoothly and people are more flexible and understanding when the system breaks down. I find it extremely frustrating.
Money is another joy...they don't take Visa, remember (No problem. Smile.) and Ryan has a low withdrawal limit on his debit card so we have to go to ATMs frequently as money doesn't go far with such high prices. But the nearest ATM isn't working often so we drive around until we find one that is working, but even then the machine may be out of money and you can't get any cash. So drive to another, find a place to park, pay the 100 Cameroonian francs fee each time...well, let's just go to a bank, says I. Right, says Ryan. And stand in a line for 2 hours and then find that such a transaction (complicated for them because it's an American bank account and there is NO WAY Ryan would use a Cameroonian bank) can only be handled by some supervisor who is out and it isn't known when he'll return. Ryan has been there and tried that. So we continue to drive thru smoky Yaounde to try and get enough money for basic groceries or gas or to pay John and Adrienne their salaries, or to pay the guy who "mows" the lawn with a weed eater or to pay for the kids school taxis or the car repairs...this is a totally cash society and is completely pay-as-you-go. No billing, no credit, no checking accounts. So cash is always an issue day to day. I would go crazy...Ryan asks for discounts everywhere he goes but most merchants aren't interested...a few have been good to him, like the Indian store owners who give him a 15% discount every time. But their merchandise is limited...
So is that about all the P&M I need? I think so. I feel better now, so thanks for listening. I so much more fully understand the pressures Ryan is under every single day without ever any relief. Hassle is his way of life, inconvenience his norm, deprivation his standard, frugality his method and frustration his constant companion. It is incredible that he is surviving as well as he does. I truly don't think I could do it long term. It can be fun to "camp" for awhile, but try it forever. Every day shows me the glory of the West and our way of life and increases my desire to help these kids find a better way and to support Ryan in more specifics and ease his burden however we can. Being here has given me a depth and clarity I lacked...I thought I understood how hard it is to live here and do what Ryan does, but I really had no clue until I have walked a bit in his moccasins. And I've only scratched the surface of his life here and spent just a few days in his world. I definitely want to return and learn more and I am going to encourage others to come and stay for an extended time...Paige would be so perfect here...and as for the safety issue, I am completely safe here...in fact in talking with Ryan, he felt more fear in downtown Sparks as he sat outside the movie theater surrounded by Hispanic gang members wearing baggy low slung pants, speaking Spanish and giving him dirty looks. I understand and using wisdom and prudence I feel there is no more threat to me here than in Sparks. Most people are just going about their daily lives...some neighborhoods are not safe, of course, but that is true in the States, too. And in talking to other "ex-pats" as non-Cameroonians are called, they agree with me. They also just go about their lives...
We're off to the Gorilla Sanctuary tomorrow morning at 8 so off to bed I go...more later.
March 24, 2008 – Mama Sharon Hansen’s 5th Blog
Gorillas, chimps, monkeys, a native village, the thick rainforest, a ride in an air-conditioned car thru wondrous countryside, air in the gorilla sanctuary so thick and humid I could feel it moving in my lungs, the sound of animals calling in the forest to each other, the buzz of insects, the knowledge gained of the peril these apes are in from poachers and starving villagers who actually eat them, seeing 9 baby gorilla orphans whose parents had been killed, a mother gorilla whose nursing infant was just about the most precious thing I've ever seen, quiet all around, the village well with a spout and pump handle from the 1800s, mud walled huts with tin roofs and no windows, cooking fires with large pots suspended over them, herds of goats bleating and running from where they were resting in the road, cackling chickens running all around...today I saw Africa.
The road to the sanctuary is paved with checkpoints where soldiers in khaki colored uniforms man small stations...a primitive toll road system. When we stopped to pay our toll, children selling bags of cut sugar cane surrounded us and we bought a bag. Another first for me...sucking the sweet juice was thirst quenching and refreshing. Very tasty. We turned onto a fairly wide washed-out-Virginia City type road that gradually narrowed to the width of the car - branches from the dense rainforest were brushing the sides of the car and covered over us in some spots as we drove higher and deeper along the red-earth dirt road...it actually was cooler than in Yaounde but the humidity was intense. By the end of our walking tour of the sanctuary I was fatigued just from breathing and can understand the slooooow pace that is typically African. It is exhausting to move in the heat under the intense sun. The best way I can describe the way the sun feels on my skin is to imagine a full day at Lake Tahoe coming home windburned, dried out, and with a mild sunburn. Then imagine going back out into the sun again the next day...that's how it feels. I am not just hot inside my skin but my skin tingles and has a burning sensation on the surface. And the moon here is smaller and much farther away...it is very different to be close to the equator.
The Swaney family of the US Embassy loaned us their car and driver for our trip, otherwise there is no way our little hunk-of-junk could have made it over the deep ruts and gullies from the intense rain that made the road a challenge for us. Richard, our driver, was marvelous, spoke English and took good care of us. We took rolls and sardines for the kids' lunch along the way, they love sardine sandwiches. Lots of water and only one stop when Adrianna felt carsick. So we all rotated so she could be in the front...the sanctuary is a small operation, completely run with donations volunteers, but vast in its impact. Cameroon used to have elephant herds and tons of apes and giraffes - but now, in all but a few areas, there are no elephants left, no giraffes, and very few apes. Some monkey species are almost extinct and Rachel, a milder version of Dian Fossey, has devoted her life to saving them. So we looked at the apes and the apes looked at us. It was impressive and we left her a small donation.
We were supposed to go swimming at the Swaneys but we were all so completely exhausted that we just had Richard drop us off at home. We all fell into bed and the kids slept for almost 3 hours, Ryan for 4. He is sick again with the same symptoms...fever, sweats, chills and like a dope didn't finish the antibiotics once he felt better, so now maybe he'll take the full 7 day course. Dang him anyway...he thinks he's invincible. Four Peace Corps volunteers showed up around suppertime and helped us feed the kids and do their evening chores. We used leftover rice, fried up onions, tomatoes and scrambled a dozen eggs, added sardines and voila! Dinner is served. Crackers and chocolate milk rounded out the meal and everyone went happily full to bed at 9 after Mama Sharon read them a story in English, which they understood since they had seen the movie - Monsters Inc. An almost perfect day, about as close to one as I have ever had. And it's my last...I leave for home tomorrow. But I don't want to talk about that...
A few things to catch up on...the easter egg hunt party at the US Embassy was a great success and a first for these children. They dyed eggs and hunted plastic eggs with treats inside, received easter baskets handmade by the Roth girls filled with American candies, Dodo and Joel won the three-legged race, they ate hot dogs and soda pop and chocolate bunnies...it was a marvelous day for them. And by the way, the US Embassy is an imposing place, beautifully kept, spit-spot clean, the grounds are immaculate, the Marines there are the Real Thing and I felt very proud to be an American and stand on American soil. Then we went off to tea with Jill and Vinny from England who work for the British High Commission...cream cakes with lemon icing, sandwiches and silly games...I had never seen a jelly-eating contest using a knife and fork before...table tennis --Vinny would not let me call it ping-pong--a tour of their absolutely lovely garden with banana and mango trees, sugar cane, flowering shrubs, a lovely oasis straight out of Out of Africa with a wide porch and lawns. They have no children and were exhausted by the time we left but happily so...so many good people love these children and Ryan.
The day before was a national holiday and we had looked forward to a "down" day with the children, just hanging out at home and relaxing a bit but it was not to be. There hasn't been a truly "down" day since I arrived and Ryan tells me it is always like this...so many visitors and activities here. Let me count...we have had birthday parties for 3 children, the DVD premiere here with around 20 people attending, lots of smooshing and PR work, tours of New Hope and Ryan telling his tale over and over; the major event with the Japanese Ambassador where every detail had to be planned and carried out to the Japanese formality standards - for example, the Ambassador and his wife had to have an escort from the moment they arrived until the moment they left and that was me! Plates of food, drinks, the requisite tour...It really was quite a sight to have John open the gate and this big Lexus limo flying Japanese flags on each side pulling in to our tiny yard with three bodyguards checking us out. The Ambassador was an unassuming man, his wife spoke fairly good English and was charming, Ryan made a speech, the Ambassador echoed Ryan's comments in his speech, the papers were signed and the check should be arriving soon. Again, probably about 20+ people in our little yard. Irina and her son Boris from Russia - Irina has lived here for 20 years and has a lovely restaurant, Mike and Nanette from the military, the Roth family, the Swaneys, three journalists who interviewed the Ambassador and Ryan, so many kind people I can't remember all their names, the children did a dance. It was exhausting. Ryan says he is always "on" and it's true. When we leave the compound he is using all his PR skills to obtain discounts or whatever, and there has been a steady flow of people thru here where he has to be the charming host...when we went to the European-style cafe there were four American girls eating at a close-by table so he went over to them and introduced himself...they are from Dickensen College on a foreign study program so he invited them to come and volunteer at New Hope. Well, sure enough, on the day of our hoped-for "down" day, 8 of them showed up! The four we'd met and four more of their classmates. While it is grand and they were terrific...they made the birthday cakes for Daniel and Adrianna and helped make dinner, played the piano and helped with schoolwork and English lessons, but again Ryan was "on" the entire time, being his affable host self and of course, we had to stretch dinner to feed the extras, too, and on Ryan's tight budget it isn't always easy to do. At home I just put more water in the soup but here it isn't quite so easy. Felicity came by just to visit one evening after she got off work, Clovis and his cousin Alex came by on Thursday evening with my going-away gift...a lovely amber necklace in a carved box and three hand made African masks...I was touched. Then the Easter egg event, the tea and we actually had a dinner invitation for this evening that we turned down from sheer exhaustion, Momo came Friday for the dance lesson, today's Peace Corps visitors, the Roths came by to pick up their DVD player, the crazy blind man who drops by when he needs a friendly chat, Adrianna's grandmother, Sandrine, Honorine, Grace, the Tutor...I am weary and a bit cranky, especially since this is my last evening with the children and I wanted it to be just us, but oh, well. This whole thing isn't about me...
And so the adventure ends...tomorrow I will shop for some trinkets to take home, spend a couple of hours with the children and head for the airport for the grueling trip home...it will be 32 hours before I am back in Reno. But my heart will still be here and I am already thinking about my next trip. Last night we stayed up a bit late and were all in Ryan's room, where the children end up every evening just before bed...one by one they just wander in until everyone is present to just hang out where Ryan is. He is their center and wherever he is, they are. It is touching to see how attached they are to him. We were listening to a silly nursery rhyme CD, singing along and reading the English words from a book...I was lying on his bed with Alexis falling asleep beside me, Janine brushing my hair behind me and Adrianna lying across me, Raissa at my feet, the boys sprawled out on the rug. I was stroking the soft ebony skin of these beautiful girls and thinking how empty my life will feel without them around me, missing their laughter and chatter, hearing their "Mama Sharon!" calls to me, their soft French accents...I have come to love them as my own and can't even think right now about leaving them. There is another fierce storm outside...the second one today...the wind is lashing the curtains, the lightning is illuminating the entire room, the thunder shakes the house and is so loud I can barely hear Ryan talking to me five feet away and the rain is coming down in buckets. I would like to think it is Africa's way of sending me off with a literal bang.
April 1, 2008 – Mama Sharon Hansen’s 6th Blog
My luggage may still be in Paris, but I am home. Although, if “ home is where the heart is”, I am still at New Hope with my wonderful son and those precious children.
My last day was frantic as we tried to tie up all the loose ends. I had written out four long pages of instructions for Ryan regarding the changes I wanted to see in diet, hygiene, sanitation, cleaning and routine. So we had a Big Meeting with all the children, John and Adrienne in attendance to discuss the new plans. Ryan, Hanna and I had gone out shopping earlier in the day – by the way, the very hottest day yet with no cloud cover and broiling sun…this time I was uncomfortable as sweat poured down my spine and dripped into my burning eyes…and purchased kitchen plastic storage containers with lids (lots of tiny ants, remember), toilet brushes, kitchen towels, garbage bags, vitamins, new toothbrushes, cleaning supplies, hand soap in dispensers, disinfectants, shower curtains, a new DVD player (theirs has been broken for some time and since it is their only source of entertainment, I insisted we buy a new one. The dear Indian shopkeeper gave Ryan $30 off the purchase price), a small broom and dustpan and more…basic supplies commonplace to America but not easily found in Yaounde. I wanted a mop and bucket but we couldn’t find them anywhere…Ryan promises to keep looking. I put all our purchases out on the table and went through them one by one, explaining what they were and how they were to be used. I told them this new program wasn’t from Ryan or John or Adrienne, but from Mama Sharon, the nurse, and I expected full compliance. The children listened attentively, asked some pertinent questions and seemed to understand the need for the changes. We talked about disease transmission from flies, thus the garbage will now be bagged. And the bacteria on our hands from the bathroom that can make them sick, thus the new washing stations in each bathroom. And the need for more and better nutrition, vitamins and worm medicine…I told them when I return I want to see trim tummies with no worm bloat and some fat on their arms. They giggled and looked embarrassed but smiled shyly. I told them I want them to eat more and if they are hungry to ask for more. We also bought insulated lunch bags for each child and Ryan put their names on them, so now they can take some fruit or a yogurt to school along with their basic sandwich of Nutella or sardines.
Since initiating more food for them, I have noticed an increase in their energy, which may be a mixed blessing for Ryan! And Falonne is recovering nicely…she still tires easily but is back to her cheerful, helpful self. The next step will be to get them all to the dentist. They have huge cavities. And to get Janine to the eye doctor. I left her my eye drops and showed her how to use them when her eyes burn.
After the meeting it was time to finish packing and take my leave. The good byes had started the evening before when Adrianna came into my room with tears in her eyes and said, “Mama Sharon, you go tomorrow?” I told her she was a little beast and broke down crying as I held her thin little body close and hugged her tight. The children hauled my suitcases out to the car and we sat together one last time as I held each one of them close and whispered how much I loved them and would miss them. And that I would come back to them. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do to tear myself away from their tear-filled eyes…Raissa was sobbing and so was I as we held each other, Janine was quietly weeping, the boys were all downcast and kicking rocks in the driveway, Alexis was snuffling and Ryan was staying busy snapping away with his camera. It had been decided that Dodo, Daniel and Falonne would accompany us to the airport, so I had a brief reprieve with them. At last we climbed into our rattletrap of a car and spluttered our way out of the compound and down the street, waving and waving until we turned the corner and my babies were gone from my sight. We hadn’t really had dinner, so at the last minute just as we were leaving, Alexis came out with a huge tomato and onion omelet she had made for me to eat in the car. I didn’t need to add salt; my tears were dripping onto the plate and salting her last tender gift to me. Ambrosia could not have tasted sweeter.
Ryan tells me that the car has since completely died and it was in its death throes on the way to the airport. I truly thought we would not make the hour long drive it was so bad. And then when we did safely pull up, I worried they would never make it back home again. (But they did). I tried so hard to soak in every minute of that last drive – every sight, sound, smell, every image to keep with me until I can go back, the feeling of the air, the sounds of French, the honking horns…all of it. As awful as much of it was, it still has a fascination for me – I think because it is so completely removed from my reality as to be surreal, not a single association with anything I know and with which I am familiar.
My experience in Africa tested and stretched me to accept a level of discomfort I would not usually tolerate here in the States without becoming terribly cranky and annoyed. Sure, I was only there for two weeks and Ryan has lived it for three years! Easy for me to talk! Could I ever live there as Ryan does? Not in one of the fancy air-conditioned homes with the lovely gardens and swimming pools of the American diplomats and military people but live at New Hope with the children? Care for them every day? I truly don’t know the answer to that question. One of my dreams has been to establish a clinic in Africa for mothers and babies to share my wealth of knowledge in my area of expertise…breastfeeding, infant nutrition, sanitation, hygiene, immunizations, disease prevention, well-baby care and followup, parenting skills, but am I strong enough to overcome the challenges Ryan has faced? Do I have the stamina, the courage, and the patience? After only two weeks “on-site”, as it were, I don’t know; it may be too late in my life for such a challenge. I think it may take someone younger and stronger, like Ryan, to make such a dream come true. And in the meantime I can focus on the health and well being of the New Hope family.
A few notes to finish up. One sticky subject is the issue of racism. For the most part I was treated well and with courtesy. However, there were instances where being white aroused contempt and a need to establish some degree of power over me or over Ryan and me, even when the children were involved. One example was the day we went to the Easter egg hunt at the US Embassy. The outer window was manned by two Cameroonians, employed by the US but nevertheless Cameroonian. The day was hot, the sun was directly overhead, we had Daniel with us and he cannot stand. He can walk with great difficulty but cannot stand for even a short time. He has to either move, leaning on his crutches or sit. So we approached the window, where, of course, Ryan has been many times and made eye contact with the guards inside. We were ignored for several minutes; our passports were not even pulled from the little slot to begin our entry process. Finally, one man slowly pulled Ryan’s passport through and then left it sitting on the counter and went and sat down. Mine remained in the slot while both men just sat there while we all broiled in the sun. Ryan was patient but finally stepped up to the window and said – hey! We have children out here, we are American citizens and you had better get moving right now! As he was yelling, an American Marine officer came into the entry foyer and told the Cameroonians to let us in AT ONCE… he said to them that Ryan is well known, we had children with us and we are obviously Americans, any American citizen is to be admitted to the foyer (which is air-conditioned) while passports are being processed. He was emphatic and annoyed and the guards let us go right in without further delay but they were smirking at us as we passed them. In their view it was some sort of power play, to us it was absolutely inhumane when they could see crippled Daniel and the other 8 children and cared not that they were standing in the hot sun.
We were ignored by a solitaire playing Cameroonian clerk at an information booth at a bank, we were refused service to cash our American Express Traveler’s Checks at a central bank where the exchange rate was even on a running electronic board behind the desk under a sign advertising traveler’s checks services. The woman was rude and told us to go and stand in a line to see someone at another window; she would not do it for us. She could have, it was part of their advertised services and part of her job but we were white. While she was refusing us, another man was shoving at us to push ahead of us and was trying to place his papers on the desk in front of us…literally moving into our place in line as it is felt to be his right to shove us aside because we are white and it is his country. At the gas station, a car pulled up beside us and the driver shouted, “Hey white! Give me money!” several times before driving off furiously when we ignored him. I was waiting for him to jump out of his car and rip open the car door and rob me because I am white. And when Daniel came home from school and started spouting clap-trap about racism in America and how Senator Obama would never be elected by Americans because he is black and Americans are so racist, Ryan had had enough and sat him down for a reality check. Are you hearing yourself, Daniel? A black man, who has been elected as a United States Senator by Americans both white and black, is actually running for President of the United States. Could a white man run for President of Cameroon? And so they had a discussion about racism in general, the tribal racism in Africa, the hatred between tribes, the genocide of their own people, the social status of people in Cameroon based on their skin shade – the darker the skin, the lower the social standing. Isn’t that blatant “racism”? And so on…
Yet, those were isolated incidents…consider the kind woman who opened my bottle of Coke for me, dear Clovis who was so kind to me and later at airport security in Yaounde, a Cameroonian guard saw me using my walking stick and waved me to the head of the line; in fact, every Cameroonian at the airport was friendly to us, we had a sweet waitress at our café who was beautiful and gracious, most of the Cameroonians who have any knowledge at all are generous and kind to Ryan and the children – Simone, Felicity, Momo and Happi, John, Adrienne, Sandrine…good people with no hatred in their hearts for anyone, black or white. But it seems anyone with a tiny degree of authority over a white uses it in an unkind way. Unfortunately that has been Ryan’s and, somewhat, my experience.
Air France was marvelous, as usual, and we were all set to take off on time at 9:20 PM, so I took my seat about 9 and got settled in for the 9-hour flight to Paris. Saying goodbye to John, Dodo, Daniel and most especially to Falonne, who has become my absolute favorite – I think because she was so sick, needed me so much and I was able to spend more individual time with her when she stayed home from school for those four days – and to Ryan left me weak with emotion, crying my heart out…that’s why I boarded the plane at the almost last minute; I couldn’t bear to leave them.
As we were preparing to take off, the Captain came on the speaker and said we would be delayed because the power had gone off as a storm was building and there were no runway lights. So we sat…and the storm began. I think we had a small window of time to beat the storm and be able to take off but we lost it due to the usual Cameroonian inefficiency – perhaps a generator at the airport would be a good idea since violent tropical storms are the norm in Yaounde, now wouldn’t you think??? So we sat and sat some more. The storm was fierce and we didn’t even leave Yaounde until midnight. So three hours sitting cramped on the plane. No problem. Smile.
We made the short hop to Douala (30 minutes) to pick up more passengers and the storm followed us, so we sat and sat in Douala until 3AM before we took off again. So now it was six hours sitting on the plane and I hadn’t even left Africa! We were given a glass of water twice and finally received some food at 5AM on the way to Paris. A very nice Cameroonian gentleman was my seat companion, he spoke some English and we chatted for a bit until we both decided to catch a few winks before we got to Paris.
Of course, we were then three hours late into Paris and Charles DeGaulle airport is a city in itself – five HUGE terminals. I originally had a four-hour window to catch my flight to San Francisco but that had now been narrowed to about 30 minutes. We landed on the tarmac somewhere out in a cow pasture (or so it looked to me) and took a slow bus to Terminal C where we were directed to a Transfer Station and more buses…mine had to take me to Terminal E, which was the last stop on their lengthy route. Then at Terminal E I had to catch a train to the gate area, so it was past my takeoff time when I got to my gate and I was in a bit of a panic, although I figured they would wait for delayed passengers and they did. There were more who boarded after me and we took off an hour late, arriving in San Francisco after twelve looong hours in those miserable seats. I again had a window seat and could nestle my head against the bulkhead and snooze a little so I actually didn’t feel too bad when we arrived in San Francisco. I had a four hour layover until I caught a United flight to Reno so I relaxed and walked to baggage claim when I heard my name called overhead to come to the Air France Service Desk next to carousel 8. Well, well, guess what? My bags were still in France but the nice lady assured me they would be delivered to my home the very next day. No problem. Smile.
I actually arrived in Reno at 10:00 PM Reno time Tuesday evening, which was about 6AM Wednesday morning my body time. Remember, I had actually left New Hope at 7PM Monday evening! So how many hours is that? And how many hours since I had awakened Monday morning? Too many for my jet-lagged brain to figure out, but enough that I was a little rummy, to say the least! Waiting for me at the airport was my dear, dear family with big posters and signs welcoming their “African Princess” home. It was a grand welcome and I was touched that they had come. Several of my grandchildren are around the same ages as the New Hope children, and I was immediately struck by their plumpness and rosy cheeks…they are not in any way “plump”, just average American kids with full cheeks and arms, no bloated bellies and it tugged at my heart to think of how stick thin my African children are, how thin their little faces are. It strengthened my resolve to do all that I can to make them healthy and hearty, and I will.
And now a plea from my heart to yours for generous donations so I can see those children plump up and be worm free and have their teeth fixed and get Janine some glasses…my family and I are just ordinary people, we work ordinary jobs and have families and mortgages just as you do and need your help to make all of this happen. Please think of how you can help in this great work…a monthly pledge on your credit card? A one-time donation? A regular schedule of donation? You can even specify how you want your money spent…to buy vitamins, or for the dentist or for the increased food budget we are going to need or for the school tuition for one of the children…whatever you can do is so greatly appreciated and needed. As you have read in these blogs, every single penny is accounted for and is solely to benefit the children. Ryan receives no salary. John and Adrienne receive modest salaries, which is only fair and right. Patrick donates all of his time. Expenses for the Green Eyes office are kept to a bare minimum and most expenses are covered there by donations also. But we do have to pay for a phone line and a computer, etc.
If my words have touched your heart at all, please go to the Green Eyes web site, (www.Greeneyesinafrica.org), see pictures of Ryan and the children, read more of the Green Eyes story, order a copy of the new DVD and put faces to all of the names I’ve shared and open your wallet for us. Without your help and donations, we can’t do this work. I wish I were a millionaire and could do all we need to do and more, and open New Hope to as many children as need us. While I was there, Ryan received two requests for placement of children with New Hope and he had to turn them down without even hearing their stories because we are unable to do any more right now. Please help us help them.
And so my Grand Adventure ends, at least this initial part of it. I don’t think I’ll ever look at American life the same way or walk through Costco without marveling at the abundance our way of life provides for us. The order, the cleanliness, the opportunities that abound for work, education, advancement, the safety and protection, the lack of disease, the long life expectancy, the medical care… we have it all and more. It is going to take me some time to process all that I have seen, done and felt, but I know one thing for sure…New Hope and those precious children are now an essential part of my life, my family, my future, my dreams and I am going to cherish them and serve them for all the rest of my days.
Oh, and my luggage arrived on Thursday. So all is well…..
See our updated Gallery Section with pictures of Ryan and the children with visitors from the US Embassy & more!