Monday, March 31, 2008

New Life

[A couple of weeks ago, our pastor at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco emailed us to ask whether we might like to write something on the topic of "new life" for an upcoming church service. Ann and I worked on it together, and sent it off, and yesterday Ann's sister Miriam read it aloud on our behalf. It's about our life in Cameroon, and it's a joint effort, so here it is. (Image: chapel of Catholic Procure, Douala, Cameroon)]

Greetings, First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, and we sure do miss you! From our vantage point in Cameroon, we figure we’ve taken the concept of ‘new life’ to a whole new level. For one year, we’ve literally chosen a life that is completely new to us. New country, people, culture, language, weather, foods, work, and everyday surroundings. This halfway point in our year is a perfect time to reflect on what we’ve been noticing around and within us, and we thank you for the invitation to do so with you. If you want to respond to this in any way, feel free to email us!

Poverty, AIDS, war, famine, corruption…the news most Americans get from Africa is not exactly brimming with resurrection and hope. But good news doesn't sell newspapers, as the saying goes, so maybe this says more about the media than about Africa. Where are the signs of new life in Cameroon, whose government is consistently recognized among the most corrupt in the world? The joke goes that they were voted the most corrupt country in the world, but paid to be moved to second place.

We're happy to say that in actuality, we see signs of resistance and resurrection here every day. Yaoundé, the capital city where we make our home, is bursting with new life and hope. Our neighborhood is near the southern edge of town, where the hillsides are dotted with half-finished houses, places where people hope to establish themselves and their families, each one a concrete investment toward the future. People flock to the city from surrounding regions, and from the dry deserts of the Far North, all hoping to find a better life in Yaoundé. There is a shadow side to this new life, as the city becomes increasingly crowded, crime increases, and there is never enough paid work for all. But the hope and determination that draw people here are beautiful, powerful forces. Like many others in Africa, Yaounde is a city of dreams.

We also see new life in the green and growing things that cover the immensely fertile regions of Cameroon. The markets spill over with fruits and vegetables and spices grown in the soil here, and even our urban area is sprouting with mango and papaya trees, banana and plantain trees, the huge leafy plants in the swamp behind our house, the riot of orange flowers in our backyard. Boys hack away roadside grass with sharp machetes, and land owners burn tangles of brush, but it all grows back eagerly. Even now, the rainy season is starting, and nature is staging an extravagant show of new life all around us. The glorious explosive rolls of thunder we lie in bed and listen to, so rare back home in San Francisco, remind us of our childhoods in Michigan, and herald new growth all around us.

The people we meet and the work we see going on here also resist the forces of death and discouragement and create more signs of resurrection. The neighborhood where we currently house-sit is full of expatriates and locals working together to translate the Bible into over 250 local languages. While we might not agree completely with the theology that motivates them, their work is important and empowering for the speakers of all these languages, as they work with local people to teach literacy skills and to capture African languages for the future, often writing them down for the first time. New life is breathed into each language as it is studied, written, preserved, dignified, and used in new ways. And those who do the work seem to find real fulfillment and positive collaboration in what they do.

RELUFA, the network of Cameroonian non-profits with which we work, also engages in numerous life-giving projects. We have some amazing and visionary colleagues determined to work for justice in their country, even when the odds seem insurmountable. Meeting beneficiaries of RELUFA’s micro-credit program, we’ve been impressed with their creativity and resourcefulness, and the way access to small loans gives new life and hope to people’s activities and aspirations. Granaries in the north help villages save their millet harvest to eat during leaner times instead of selling it off to speculators and then buying it back at a huge markup when times are lean. Lawyers and other advocates work hard to hold logging, mining, and oil companies accountable for how they treat the land and its people by confronting them with the human cost of their activities, and by persuading them to open their books to international public scrutiny. These truly are small resurrections in the face of death-dealing forces like poverty, hunger, injustice and exploitation.

Of course, the new life we notice here in Cameroon is not only around us, but within us too. As volunteer workers in a culture with a very relaxed attitude toward time, we find ourselves removed from the constant feeling of hurry that’s built in to our San Francisco life. For the most part, it’s been really lovely, allowing us to take time to read widely, cook meals together, explore the reaches of our neighborhood on foot, and (perhaps for the first time in our adult lives) get enough sleep – all the time! This unique opportunity to slow down for a year is definitely very renewing for us. We hope to bring home some enduring lessons about the value of living slowly.

Another effect we notice is our ability to be more present in our interactions with others, and to truly take time for conversations and social interactions. Everyone does this here, even foreigners, and people aren’t always thinking about rushing off to the next thing on their agenda. Although it took us time to get used to it, we now appreciate the fact that building relationships and interacting with others is an important part of life here, even of work and business.

Our relationship to each other also gets more time here, and consequently more growth. Here our work, home life, and social activities overlap almost completely, so conflicts and communication issues which would be easier to ignore in our busier and more divergent lives back home are pulled into the light. It’s hard work sometimes, but also a wonderful opportunity to face and deal with these things, getting to know each other and our marriage more fully in the process.

Another important area of growth for us has come through the challenges of adjusting to our ‘new life’ in Cameroon. We are certainly out of our comfort zones in various ways, whether it’s our inability to communicate well in French, the constant attention that comes with being a racial minority, increased safety concerns, personal requests for money and favors that would be out of place back home, or any number of other adjustments to an unfamiliar culture. While the everyday struggles of most Cameroonians serve as a good reality check, making our problems seem petty in comparison, it has been good for us to acknowledge our own struggles and accompany each other through them, widening our horizons in the process.

On a broader scale we are faced with gaping disparities of wealth every day, with the harsh realities of how many people of the world live. Our privilege is supported by complicated systems of exploitation that contribute to the misery of the poor, and the lack of simple solutions and clear courses of action is painfully clear. But even hard truths like these are laced with resurrection for us, in that we don’t want to give up. Being here has brought to life for us how important it is to engage with our world, and to act out of hope so that hope can remain alive. It's said that we can truly change only ourselves, so educating ourselves is a gift to the world, because from this can flow a lifetime of informed engagement and hope.

Finally, stepping out of our usual surroundings and into this new life has sharpened our perspective on what we’ve chosen to leave behind for a year. The relationships, the natural beauty, the food, the cultural opportunities, our spiritual home at First Mennonite, and the general vibrancy of San Francisco (as well as a mean temperature of about 60 degrees, as far as Chris is concerned) …our appreciation of all this grows deeper across the distance. There is much that we are excited to return to! When we do return, shaped by our experiences here in Cameroon, we hope to find ways to hold these new thoughts and spaces that this year is opening for us, to bring new life to the way we live and maybe to our community too.

We love you. Peace.

fruit dryer photos, from the road trip

These are pictures of the fruit-drying operations we visited on our road trip last week. They are all run by small groups of 3-6 people who are members of TerrEspoir. The drying is done in large wooden ovens filled with racks on which fruit is dried, heated by the same gas (propane?) that everyone runs their stoves and ovens with here. All the dryers have received training and startup funds from TerrEspoir, who also sets the prices at which they buy fresh fruit and sell dried. TerrEspoir places orders, conducts inspections, and handles delivery of the fruit to Switzerland. There is very little market for dried fruit in Cameroon, because of the cost.

In uniform, in front of a dryer. That small white hose runs into a gas container you can just see behind her.

The inside of that same dryer, with bananas on the rack. Normally all the racks are filled, but this is the tail end of a drying order, because we visited towards the end of the week, and deliveries are on Friday.

Dried bananas. In a bucket.

A larger dryer at another group. These are three of the six members we met. Note gas cannister again. The inspector from TerrEspoir recommended putting the cannister outside, so this group in working on running a line for that, and constructing an enclosure outside the building.

The inside of that big oven. Bananas again.

Work uniforms, hats and a scale from one of the operations.

That red circle on the right is a chute by which fresh fruit comes into the building. The drying facilities are separated into different stations, so that the fresh fruit does not come into contact with the dried product.

Christi, our coworker, who works with RELUFA on behalf of the Presbyterian Church USA.

Another group of dryers. This is the other side of that red chute from a couple of pictures ago. The TerrEspoir inspector also recommended those glass louvres in the window, which also has mosquito netting. The concrete sinks are for washing fruit.

A small digital scale, and the sealer used on the bags once they are filled with fruit. TerrEspoir ships in these bags from Switzerland, and all the dryers use them. They label the back with a lot number, a date, and the name of their group. The front part of the bag has a window that displays the product -- this one, obviously, is empty.

Tools of the trade. That doodad next to the blue glove is for coring pineapples.

Two members of another group, and a daughter, along with two drying ovens.

Your intrepid bloggers, traversing Africa to bring you the latest from the front lines of dried fruit production. Ann is working with Christi on fair-trade research, and took notes during this trip, so I was on photography duty.

A member of another drying group. You can see a basin and some gas bottles behind her. That item at the lower right is a stainless-steel work surface.

Here she is again with some of their products. Those plastic buckets are filled with various dried fruits yet to be bagged. They sent us on our way with some dried pineapple and mango. Dried mangoes are the best, and it's almost impossible to find them in the US with no sugar added, which essentially turns them into candy. The eventual goal of the fair-trade research is to sell them in the US market under a fair-trade label, and as far as we've been able to determine, there is no competition yet.

If you've never eaten a mango, it tastes like a combination of a peach with the smell of a pine tree. The dried version is chewy and tastes even more intense.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fruit pics from Terrespoir trip

Cameroon is a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables, among other things. It's a real pleasure to have some pictures of a few of these to share, from our road trip last week. Enjoy!

The trip was to visit with fruit dryers associated with a Swiss-Cameroonian NGO called Terrespoir. Their growers and dryers produce fruit for export to Switzerland. Every Friday, Terrespoir collects the fresh and dried fruit at a church in the port city of Douala, boxes it, and loads it on a truck. The truck heads to the cargo port at Douala airport, where the food is loaded into small containers and onto a pallet for air shipment to Switzerland. This is the process we saw on our trip, starting with the dryers and moving on to the collection point and the airport, omitting only the farms where the fruit is grown.

Terrespoir is a member of RELUFA, the Cameroonian NGO network we volunteer with. The trip was a fact-finding mission for our coworker Christi to find out more about how the business works, because RELUFA is interested in getting involved with fair trade. This, if you haven't heard of it, is a worldwide movement to get more of the revenues for products, especially food, back to the actual producers. We took a lot of pictures, some of them interesting, so this is just the first installment.

Boxing papayas for shipment.

From left, boxed eggplant, ginger and limes.


Small hot peppers. The tasty and ubiquitous Cameroonian pimante sauce is made from these.

Plantains and sugarcane. There was only one box of sugarcane that we saw, so this may be a snack for the workers rather than an export product. It's sold all over the place here in Yaounde as a snack, in short lengths like this. Incidentally, the Coca-Cola here is made with sugar, not corn syrup, and so is a bit less sweet, and to my mind much tastier, probably because this is what it tasted like when I was a kid in the US.

Boxing mangos. Like everyone else we met here, this lady was all smiles and laughter until it was picture time, when she assumed her serious demeanor.

Loading the truck with pineapple.

More mangoes. This lady is laughing because just out of frame to the left, her friend is harassing and teasing her to crack her up for the camera. After the picture she actually jumped up and, laughing, gave her a smack.

This is some of the dried fruit. Each individual bag is stamped with a date, a lot number, and the name of the dryer. Terrespoir checks the weight and labeling of each individual bag when it is boxed up on Friday, and visually inspects the fruit (bananas, in this case) through the window in the front of the package. If there's any problem with the product, Terrespoir ships it back from Switzerland and docks the dryers not only the cost of the fruit itself, but the cost of air freight.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Back from the Road Trip

Hey, we're back in Yaounde after our road trip with Christi and Isaac, and Daniel from Terrespoir. We visited lots of fruit dryers, saw their weekly delivery to a church in Douala where everything is weighed and boxed up for delivery to Switzerland, and we even got to follow the truck into the cargo section of the Douala airport. I always wanted to see a cargo port. I'll post pictures from all this tomorrow or soon after. At the moment, Ann and I are up at CTC, across the street from home, checking our email.

Also, here's a quick followup to the "Mission Statement" posting from March 12 (available here). The document I took the quote from is "Poverty and Mission" by Fr. Fernando Domingues, MCCJ. I found it on the "Vulnerable Mission Discussion" page of the Jim Harries Mission website, which someone linked to from a page in the network here at CTC, the SIL compound where we sometimes use the computers. SIL is the translation organization our friends the Kapteyns work for. We live in their house right now. They were our link to the Boyds, who offered us our volunteer positions here.

Got all that? I mention it because someone asked. And I believe MCCJ is a Catholic religious order.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

road trip!

We're off with RELUFA coworker Christi and two others on a four-day road trip early tomorrow morning, to the towns of Douala, Njombe and Bafoussam. Ann and Christi are doing research related to fair trade (a term that refers to programs that ensure a healthy chunk of the revenues get back to the producers), and I'm coming along for the ride, and taking pictures for any articles Ann will write about this. We'll be visiting some fruit dryers associated with an NGO that is a RELUFA member. We want to get better acquainted with the dryers and their work, to see their facilities and how they run their business. We'll be back in Yaounde on Saturday. No bus this time after all; we'll be taking Christi's car, and we hired Isaac, who is married to Julia who works at our house, to be the driver. I'd love to drive myself, but I never bothered to get an international license for this trip. We're glad we could throw Isaac some work, and it will be great to have another anglophone along to talk (fluently) with. He's a solid, friendly guy, so maybe this could lead to more work for him too.

We had Isaac Julia and some of their family over a couple of weeks ago, and their nephew Paul announced his engagement at our place after dinner! We got some nice pictures of that, so I'll get few of those posted sooner or later. Paul's fiancee is off to Dallas to live with her folks and go to school, and they decided to get engaged before she left.

Reading list for the trip: Wind, Sand and Stars, by Saint-Exupery (Ann); The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Chris); Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow (Chris). Packing list: clothing, bug repellent, assorted medicines, aforementioned books, flashlights, water bottles, notebooks,
pens, nifty bandannas stuffed with water-retaining chemicals to wrap around your neck and stay cool, camera, hats, sunglasses, towels. We forgot the mosquito net this time; we'll have to lard up with repellent before we go to bed at night.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Journee Internationale de la Femme

Quick, when is International Women’s Day? What, you don’t know? Extra credit for all those who already knew that March 8 marked this year’s celebration, but I think most Americans probably move along in more-or-less blissful ignorance of this supposedly international day of recognition. Indeed, I don’t recall any sort of fuss being made about it during any of my three decades of life in the United States.

Imagine my surprise at finding it one of the major national celebrations here in Cameroon! Early on in our time here, I would occasionally notice women and girls wearing clothing made from ‘International Women’s Day’ fabric. Some in orange background, some green, some pink, all featuring different pictures and patterns and words. Soon enough, I learned that a new International Women’s Day fabric is created in Cameroon each year, and women are encouraged (pressured?) to buy it and have dresses made so they can march in the annual procession. Different civic, corporate, church, and social groups get together and have a grand parade in the center of town.

Though I frown upon pressures to conform socially or fashionably, I’m certainly a great fan of women, and I do like a parade. So on Saturday the 8th of March, I headed downtown with friends Adriana and Beth to take in the festivities. Adriana had purchased some of this year’s fabric and sewn herself an outfit, with enough to spare for an extra shirt. So I had the great pleasure of wearing the extra shirt! This mostly meant that people would smile and wish us “bonne fête” as we walked along. There was much to see, mostly involving huge crowds of women wearing dresses made out of the same fabric.

Our first glimpse of the action after we disembarked from our taxi was the main road toward downtown, blocked off, filled with women lined up waiting for their group’s turn to march in the parade.

Some found more comfortable places to wait, involving benches and/or shade umbrellas. Really, I don’t blame them. It was nearing mid-day, and sensible shoes were not a popular choice. (As they rarely are with African women.)

When the time came for marching, then march they did…

…in LARGE numbers! (Note the gendarme with his big ol’ gun in the foreground to the right. There was a large police and military presence that day, presumably there for crowd control, but also a reminder of the recent unrest and violence.)

The goal of their marching was to parade past the grandstands, filled with local dignitaries and other folk, where each group in turn was announced (by female announcers) in French and English. In this way, it was not entirely unreminiscent of the Rose Bowl parade.

It was truly a march for the women, a time for them to display their numbers and the various groups and careers to which they belong.

The few men who marched were only allowed in if they were ‘with the band,’ as it were.

Most of the fellows just had to watch from the sidelines for once.

There were few exceptions to the ‘uniform’ of the day. These fairy dancers (as we called them) were some of my favorites, and they were rockin’ some pretty graceful moves in their pink-and-white gauzy outfits instead of marching in matching dresses. Note the police officers guarding the street are also women.

There were also a few exceptions to the rigid marching formation, such as the more laid-back wheelchair delegation. Some of the handicapped women were in ‘typical’ wheelchairs being pushed by assistants, and others were moving themselves along in the innovative hand-pedaled contraptions that many people use here. Bringing up the rear of their delegation was a woman in one of these, rolling along in a gracious slalom pattern, a large yellow umbrella fastened to her chair. She was great, and I’m sorry not to have gotten a picture of her.

The sight I most regret not photographing was even better though, so I’ll describe it here. As we walked back up the road to where we could catch a taxi home, we saw the last few groups of women finally marching toward the grandstands. After the final group came a few trucks and an ambulance (just in case), then a few moments later, a magnificent sight rolled into view. A big yellow bulldozer with one woman driving and another perched on the side seat. They were both wearing the matching dresses, grinning from ear to ear and waving at everyone. It was fantastic! Alas that my camera was all put away in the depths of my bag, because they were past before I could snap them.

All in all, it’s good that people celebrate International Women’s Day, but I’m not convinced that this one day of marching in the streets and dressing alike does much to change Cameroonian women’s lives for the better. The worth of a woman here still seems to be primarily measured by how soon she can find a husband and how many babies she can produce. Once found, that husband may or may not stick around, treat her with respect, or find enough work to support a family. And that husband definitely won’t help with any of the housework; gender roles are still very much engrained into the culture here. Many women are not encouraged to learn any skills beyond cooking, keeping house, and perhaps singing with the women’s association at their church. Women are only just beginning to be allowed into positions in society that allow them to fully participate in leadership or decision-making, and then only rarely.

So it is my hope that this annual celebration will help Cameroonian women to realize their own strength, will remind them that some of their sisters are indeed holding all types of jobs in all levels of society. The women here are numerous, resourceful, and goodness knows they are not afraid of hard work. Who knows what might happen if they decide to step into their own power?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mission Statement

The challenge today is no longer that of doing great works in favour of the poor, but the more demanding one of helping the poor to fight their own poverty doing the works they can do with their own hands, in their own time, with their own priorities … and to the extent that is possible, also with the financial resources they can gather. (Fr Fernando Domingues, MCCJ)

I found this statement at the end of a document about poverty and missions that someone here in the SIL mission community linked to, but it seems like a good mission statement for a lot of the NGO work we participate in here as well. Partnership and accompaniment, rather than patronage and handouts. Helping people to build their own solutions instead of solving their problems for them. And finding ways to be effective and useful in the face of enormous difficulties. I find this enormously appealing. But it's on the largest scale possible, and leaves me with questions about how to live this way from day to day.

Cameroonians we know here (not our coworkers) ask us for money and favors on a fairly regular basis. And while we certainly have far more resources than they do, I always wonder whether I'm being played. But then, even if I am being played, a friend once mentioned to me, here it just means someone is probably covering up a real and more embarrassing need with something else that seems more likely to produce the desired results.

Throw into this mix the fact that local culture dictates that people with resources share them liberally, and that there is no shame in asking someone for something that they have that you do not, and I'm left with a lot to think about.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Home Cookin'

Last week at the market, I asked our lovely house help Julia to help me buy some greens so that she could teach me how to cook them. There are all sorts of greens used in Cameroon, many of them very bitter. (One called ndole, for example, has to be washed numerous times, at least once with limestone, to remove some of the bitter taste.) I wanted a type that can simply be cooked and seasoned, so we bought two huge bunches of a variety simply called ‘greens’ by Anglophones, and ‘folon’ (not sure of the spelling) by Francophones. It sure looked like a huge pile of greens, the bundles tied up with dried grass, and so big that we had to buy a new market sack to carry them in. Fortunately there were lots of boys swarming around and ready to sell us a sack, along with all those swarming around in hopes of carrying our already-full sacks for us in their wheelbarrows.

The next day we prepared the greens, along with some fish we had purchased. Here are the greens and the fish before we set to work.

Lots of garlic and ginger, an onion and some tomatoes later (as well as a few of the MSG/bouillon flavor cubes that seem to be omnipresent in African cuisine), the greens were cooked down into a small but very tasty shadow of their former selves. And the fish (honestly I wasn’t any help with all the scaling and gutting and slicing off of fins – Julia did every bit of that!) were fried to perfection.

Looks quite different, non? And it was delicious. We had a few friends over later that evening and made a fine meal of fish and greens and boiled potatoes. Now that’s what I call some gooood home cookin’!

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Mount Cameroon Race: Going to See the Queen

Chris has posted quite a bit about our recent trip to the South West Province, but I asked him to save one particular piece of reporting for his slow-blogging wife. Now that it’s March (March!), it’s time I told you why we really went to Buea. Sure it was a work-related trip, and we spent most of our time hearing stories from micro-loan recipients and potential applicants. But the real reason we went exactly when we did was because I wanted to see the queen.

Toward the beginning of each year, Buea is the site of a little-known but remarkable running event, the Mount Cameroon Race of Hope. Mount Cameroon, a 13,500 – foot tall volcano that looms over the town, sets the stage. Then on the designated weekend in late January or early February, hundreds of runners gather to tackle the mountain’s punishing slopes. Most are Cameroonian men, but some come from other places, and some are women. It was these women I wanted to see, particularly one. Watching a (rather annoying) travel DVD about Cameroon before we left, we learned of a woman named Sarah Etonge, mother of seven or eight children, who lives in Buea and competes in the mountain race each year, usually wearing jelly shoes. (You know, those clear plastic things that were popular in the 80s.) She’s been the first woman to finish numerous times, earning local celebrity status and the honorary title ‘Queen of the Mountain.’ I really wanted to see Sarah run.

Sunday the 17th of February, the morning of the race dawned cool and hazy. Perhaps I should say races, for there are four or five competitions, with different distances and categories. All runners started from Buea’s main stadium at about 7:00am, and by the time we walked out to the main road shortly after 7:30, a stream of red- and green-shirted harriers was passing by, running to a point just out of sight from our vantage point near the Presbyterian guest house, then turning to run back down again. This was clearly one of the shorter races, and included a large number of women. Some time later, after we stopped back at our room and prepared to make our way down into town for the day, we saw occasional gray-shirted young men striding down the mountain on well-muscled legs, yet another competition. The marathoners were already on their way up the mountain, not to return for some hours yet, because their course would take them all the way to Mount Cameroon’s summit and back down.

We passed the time at our friend Meg’s house, eating breakfast and trying to catch some race coverage on TV or radio. Having missed the marathoners on their ascent, I was determined not to miss a moment of their descent, so Chris walked with me up to the main road just above the stadium where the runners would finish. It was still hazy, but no longer cool, the noonday sun glaring through the dust. We sat in the shade of a church, watched a small goat drag its cement block tether around, waved at a busload of American college students, witnessed the dramatic and dusty take-off of a helicopter. Bit by bit, the streets lined with other spectators, gendarmes swatting people back with belts if they encroached too far onto the road.

At last, the first male racer, a scrap of dark cloth pinned to his dirtied white jersey, came into view, escorted by a truck with a TV camera, gendarmes, and a small entourage of supporters.
Then another, then another, then a yellow-shirted relay racer, a cloth sash marking him as the official runner of the last leg, flanked by his two teammates.
Some of the men had others running alongside them, carrying water or offering support, and others were alone with little fanfare.
While most wore conventional running shoes, a few wore jellies.
Some looked strong, others as if they might fall down soon, but all looked dusty, sweaty, and somewhat the worse for wear. Each of them had a small dark scrap of cloth pinned to his shirt.
One man, on precariously skinny legs, had his forehead all bandaged up and was more dirt-spattered than the rest, the casualty of a headlong fall on the way down the mountain.

Finally the first woman ran by, her approach heralded by a siren, also with her entourage of supporters, gendarmes, and a few vehicles. She was young and muscular, in her twenties I believe, wearing a red jersey. Surely Sarah must be coming soon.

Unfortunately, this is when we ran out of space on our camera, because Sarah did come soon. A few minutes after the first woman passed, there was a commotion from up the road. Numerous cars processed along the race course, people leaning out windows and waving flags, running in the streets, holding cameras…and there she was. In the midst of all the joyful commotion, a slight woman in red strode determinedly on, twists of hair flying around her face, unruffled by the party going on around her. She just kept running. I could feel it from the general happiness in the air, but I tapped a person next to me and asked “Was that Sarah?” “Yes,” he replied, “that was the queen of the mountain.”

Wow. I had seen her. It really was that good, and I was still kicking myself for missing her on the way up. We went back to Meg’s house for a delicious lunch, and watched the medal ceremony on television. The sound was awful and the picture not much better, but we could make out Sarah’s small figure, cloaked in a navy blue ‘skylotto’ windbreaker, as she was given special honors for not only today’s strong finish, but for her lifetime achievements and the honor she brought to running in Cameroon. She was even given a job as part of her award, quite a big deal in a country where women seldom work outside the home and men are often unemployed too.

On our way back up to the guest house where we were staying, Chris and I stopped to look for a special statue of Sarah, freshly unveiled and dedicated that very afternoon. To our surprise, the statue had already been toppled from its base, and was lying on the ground. Quite frankly, it was a crappy statue, and looked more like someone’s giant paper mache project. We learned later that Sarah’s fans had toppled the statue, demanding a better representation of the queen of the mountain.

This post is long, I know, but the best part is here at the end. The following morning as Chris as I were leaving our room in the guest house, we heard some voices, then saw two people in the hallway. They were looking for a woman (named Ann, interestingly enough) staying in the room next to ours, and asked if we knew where she was. We didn’t know where Ann had gone, but I tried to stretch the conversation as I took in the two people before us. The large man with a shaved head didn’t get my attention, but I couldn’t stop looking at the small woman in running shoes and a navy windbreaker, her face framed by twists of hair…could it be? I asked to see the back of her jacket, and when she turned to reveal the same ‘skylotto’ I’d seen on television the previous afternoon, I knew. It was Sarah Etonge, right in our guest house!!!! We congratulated her on her race the day before a talked a bit more, absolutely amazed at our chance meeting with the woman of the hour.

When we spoke of our hopes to return to Buea to climb Mount Cameroon (at a nice reasonable pace over two or three days), she told us to give her a call, as she knew some good guides, and occasionally guided some hikers herself. So yes, we totally got Sarah Etonge’s number. We may or may not get to hike up the mountain with her (I’d probably go into orbit with joy), but that day I felt like about the luckiest girl-runner in the world, because I got to see the queen.