Australian Jim Callahan is currently volunteering in Cameroon as part of our Medical Capacity Building Team. Here he shares his recollections of his first week in-country.
After 11 days on the road here in Cameroon, with a new team, living in each other’s pockets, a new hospital and hotel every day, and working in French, I’ve been reminded how infrequently I’m truly stretched at home. But the rewards have been ample.
The small Medical Capacity Building Team of four from Mercy Ships has spent the last 1,000km crisscrossing the southern and coastal regions of Cameroon visiting regional hospitals. Not a minute goes by out in the field where there isn’t something fascinating to witness. There is joy to be had from simply drinking in and watching daily life. Whereas we will often go inside for recreation at home, Africans go outside onto the street. Think Moomba, or a summer festival in Melbourne. Well, most country towns and villages are like this all day, every day, teeming with activity.
Our Troopcarrier has been the perfect match for this trip and it hasn’t been overkill either, having spent some time sliding through a banana plantation axle deep in rich sloppy topsoil, low-4 engaged, laptops and equipment lurching around in the boot, trying to reach a remote hospital of 2 staff.
The open roads are eerily quiet, except for the odd bush taxi (24 in a Hiace anyone?!), rapidly driven inter-city buses and intimidating logging trucks. We came across a stationary bulldozer in our lane facing us as well as a marooned ute with three wheels, both without forewarning, sitting midway through blind corners. So it pays to be extra prudent here. No-one wears a helmet on motorbikes, and many cars have no functioning lights.
In contrast to the beauty and relative quiet of the country, the cities throb with life. Corolla and Starlet taxis, cheap Chinese motorbikes with up to four on board (no helmets of course) filling every available space, communicating with horns like a swarm of buzzing insects. The gaps between cars is often down to centimetre precision and, as if by osmosis, the traffic flow moves constantly to the place with the least density, be it up footpaths, or back against the flow of traffic. It really is like a big game of dodgem cars, so far removed from the aggro rules-based order of Australian traffic. No-one seems to be following any rules to the letter, and yet they’re chilled out in horrendous traffic.
Police and customs checkpoints on the back roads has been a mixed bag. Despite Mercy Ships’ propensity for obsessive detail and preparation, which I’m thankful for, the odd corrupt public servant still finds something ‘irregular’ with the car or our paperwork. One copper didn’t like where my visa had been stamped in my passport, as though I was responsible for that. One of the local doctors is very principled and seethes at the first whiff of corruption, so I don’t know what has been more challenging; enduring the long game the cops play before either letting you proceed or extracting money from you, or trying to diffuse the heated exchanges between Dr Fabo and his corrupt countrymen, and it’s always men by the way.
Food options are diverse. A bag of avocados, mangos or bananas can be had for loose change, thanks to the southern region’s equatorial climate. Banana sangers have been popular with the MCB team on the road, lots of packet biscuits and the aforementioned fruit. Armadillo, viper and rat (aka bush meat) are common sights on the roadside, also available at your nearest participating restaurant. Dog is also eaten here, which I find confronting.
I have my own little internal checklist, and this time it was hospital number 6 we visited that was the first to have both running water and soap. That there are still hospitals in 2018 without soap and water is very sad. The hand sanitiser has been getting a workout as a result. Again, it’s the fundamental lack of the fundamentals that remains the fundamental problem. Also, a new personal record for time passed in my life without seeing a Westerner – 6 days. Not a big tourism market here.
Lots of encouragement from the locals when out for a run though, mostly they yell ‘du courage’ , meaning ‘all the best’ in this context, with the occasional ‘Hullow white marn!’ The Franglais in the MCB team has been hilarious at times; quote of the week from Dr Brice explaining which way I should park the car in the driveway” ‘Jim, enter with your bottom’. I’ve told him to not repeat that on ship! It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have the company of the three highly intelligent and impressive doctors of the MCB team. You can’t help but feel buoyant and motivated around such humans.
On our return to Douala and the ship last week, a Toyota Hilux that had obviously been rolled over with force was being driven down the highway. The roof was crushed, twisted, lopsided. The roof now being too low for a human to sit in, the driver had somehow climbed aboard, got the car to highway speed, his hands now on the wheel, torso and shoulders squeezed into the crushed cabin, and his head poking out of the driver’s window, above roof level. ‘Did you see that Daya!’ was all I could say. And to think that my visa stamp is allegedly incorrectly placed in my passport. Ah, Africa.
Warmest regards to all,