Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Monday report

Monday report

A truly incredible day. We wish you could have been here with us, especially the EWB members and family who have worked on all the support that got us here.

We had decided, in conversations with the chief of Bakang and others, that Monday would be the day they could come and work with us on filling out the health questionnaires that help us determine the water needs. We had also gotten the only drilled well in Bakang partially repaired on Sunday, to be completed on Monday, and maybe word had gotten out about this. A few people I (Dr. Steve) had spoken to in French had also said “See you Monday, right?” so we were pleased that some folks were going to show up. Still, we had no clear idea what to expect.

It was a beautiful temperate day. We packed all our equipment into the SUV and Mateus drove us out to Bakang. The road goes out of central Bamendjou, past the Catholic mission, down a long, then steep hill and over a bridge where people are often washing their clothes and collecting water from the turbid pools. The clayey dirt road then goes up a steep incline and branches left. This is, as we have now learned, Bakang I, which is a separate area (with a separate chief) from Bakang II, which starts further up at the crossroads where we had centered our work previously. The crossroads has four cabins or huts, one at each corner, two generally populated by a handful of people and having small stocks of snacks, sugar cane, and drinks for sale. Using this as our meeting point, we had seen people often passing by, some on foot with goods or water on their head, sometimes two or three people on a small motorbike.

To the right and up a hill from this crossroads is Bakang’s public school where the community hopes for a well and water storage for distribution down into the homes. Barney and Julie have surveyed this road since a water line may parallel this route. From the top of this hill one obtains a vista including most of Bakang: the shallow valley has houses scattered among the lush greenery of palm, plantain, corn, and other foliage. Many homes are actually compounds with several structures, but at least the main one is typically roofed with two or more sharply pointed diamond shapes. These are now constructed of corrugated sheet metal but remind one of the thatched coverings that are now only seen at the major chefferies, where the chief maintains a link to the traditional ways.

We approached the crossroads on a horizontal stretch that parallels the hill crest to the right and a valley to the left. We’ve examined wells on both sides of this road, determining the depth and, when there is water in them, analyzing for chemical and bacterial properties. The wells are better in quality than the surface waters, but we have found fecal coliform bacteria in many of them. Even these wells are dry for some months and too sparse, so that many residents rely on the surface waters we have found to be ridden with fecal coliform (intestinal) bacteria.

From a distance we could see quite a crowd. A path opened up for the vehicle and we found ourselves encircled by a crowd of singing and clapping Bakangians. As we exited and stood, we heard the drum and gourd percussion from a group of men while the women cheered and sang. I later counted 160 people, mostly women and many in traditional dress, but at this moment one could only be overwhelmed at this unexpected welcome at a formerly quiet intersection. It seemed to us that we had done so little, and that there is so much more to do: that our presence was met with such enthusiasm was almost stunning.

The singing and cheering went on while we got our bearings. Some of us quickly turned on our cameras (you must see Tony’s and Sam’s videos with sound to get any idea of this experience). We located the chief of Bakang (II) and shook hands and were also introduced to the chief of Bakang I. We all greeted each other and, after a lot more dancing, we were seated along with the chiefs and other notables while the Mayor’s car appeared and even more pandemonium ensued. Finally, he and Mr. Kamdoum, another local politician, quieted the crowd and gave short speeches met with periodic chanted responses. Dr. Steve was even asked to give a short speech which was translated into the local Bamiléké dialect. As far as we can tell, he talked about the need to take care of water resources as a community responsibility.

Then to work. We put together three teams to interview a random sample of the population (every sixth person around the circled crowd). With fairly specific questions on our health survey, we needed a Bamiléké-French translator, French-English translator, and recorder for each team. It was a painstaking process but the people sat on benches and waited their turns very patiently (the need for patience is often apparent in this part of the world). We learned a lot about water needs and health problems in the village area. As usual, the children and women are the water carriers (one husband didn’t even know how long the water trip takes). Women suffer more illness than men. Although crops are plentiful (plantains, potatoes, corn in particular), there is malnutrition from lack of adequate protein. Stomach problems, including amoebic dysentery, are well known.

While this all transpired, the well repair was being completed behind us. The hand pump now works and water is flowing. As a pumped well, this water will be much healthier because the dug wells have open access and are not germ-free. This well is also deeper and will provide a sure supply for about a third of the water requirements we estimate for the community. It cost us about $120 to get this facility renovated with repair and a new filter. Of course, it must still be hand carried and, being almost 2 miles from some areas of Bakang, will not be used in place of closer but less safe water sources . More wells, with storage and distribution, are also needed to free the women and children from this task so they can raise the income and education levels in this area.

As we completed our surveys and the crowds dispersed, we got back to our surveying and water exploration. Julie and Barney got more surveying done, almost to the far end of the road running south from the intersection, which we want in order to assess relative water elevations in the nearby wells. Sam and Tony hiked to more water locations while Steve and Sarah went to the parish to e-mail Michael Davidson, our CEE departmental electrical technician, for advice on repairing the electrical resistivity equipment which we have failed at so far.

The afternoon rains washed us all out. Barney and Julie, in particular, were quite muddy when we finally found them. With the rains, they had to stop under the covered entrances to family compounds to record their data so the pages didn’t get drenched. Mateus was driving the 4WD Toyota and we learned in some harrowing moments that these dirt roads are almost impossible to navigate when very wet (parents, do not worry: there were no steep cliffs or fast speeds, just zig-zag glissades through the mud and close to the ditches). We were so pleased to get back to the house that Mateus received a round of applause.

We went out to eat! It turns out that Bamendjou actually has a little restaurant up on the hill, and Olivia’s father had pre-ordered for us since we were apparently a crowd. The fare was chicken and potatoes, and Dr. Steve (the vegetarian) says the potatoes were absolutely great along with “33” which is a Cameroonian beer. The restaurant is called the “7-11.”

Late, back at the house, we continued with our tasks. Surveying data was entered. Sam counted bacterial colonies on the Petri dishes, which again showed serious fecal contamination of surface waters. Dr. Steve and Sarah worked until 1 am trying to get the resistivity device working. They found a bad connection, dismantled and repaired, and took the setup outside to test. It still did not work.

What a day.


Anonymous said...

Dad Fortunato
Sounds like the progress is very slow going but ever forward. I would guess that you will read this either in Douala or when you get back but you guys are doing a terrific job. To be able to have the forsight to see the need that by improving the simple necessities of life for these people you are helping them survive and to flourish. "It is always better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." and it sound like you have ignited a bonn-fire by the number of people that showed up for your tow meeting. Stay well and travel safely back to our arms. You are always in our prayers. See you all on Friday.

Jen said...

You guys are doing an amazing thing. What an awesome experience. We're so proud of you! You're in our thoughts and prayers. Have a safe trip back. Love ya Julie!

Jacque said...

It is so great to hear of your successes, we can't wait to have you back in the states to hear more details of the trip. We are thinking of you lots! Liesel says "Hi Aunt Goolie"

Anonymous said...


As always, I've been thinking about all of you every day. Sounds like tiring but very rewarding work. Have a safe trip home. I'm very proud of my goddaughter, Julie!

Lucy said...

Thanks for writing this.