Islamic Primary School AidCamp

Cameroon - November 2015

This was a two-week project which took place between 7 and 21 November 2015. The purpose of the project was to add at least one new classroom to the Rifem Mbiame Islamic Primary School, Mbven, Bui, North West Cameroon.

Rifem Mbiame has 200 pupils and six members of staff however the school itself was in a dilapidated state with classrooms that had dusty floors, unplastered walls, poorly maintained walls and roofs and few, if any, proper doors and window shutters.

The following is a personal account of the project written by two, first-time volunteers with AidCamps Tara and Sarah.

"There's a first time for everything and this was our first time volunteering with AidCamps International and the first time either of us had done anything like this. It was an amazing experience and we'd like to share some of that with you. Our project entailed completing the new classrooms for the Islamic Primary Schoool in Rifem Mbiame, Mbven, Bui, North Western Cameroon. The funds we raised in advance paid for local skilled building labour and materials, enabling the work to start before we arrived at the site. Our work included plastering, painting, mixing mortar and making things called "clusters" using a mould. These components are then fixed in place together to make secure windows to the classrooms, whilst still allowing air to flow through.

Although we had been told that the children and teachers were in cramped and unhealthy conditions, we were still quite shocked to see how dilapidated and inadequate the two existing rooms had become. However, it soon became apparent that the whole community were very much behind this project and as we worked on site we were joined by local people and some of the school children themselves, helping us to get the work complete in the two weeks we were there. There was a great atmosphere on site and we all had lots of fun whilst working hard! We basically built a whole new school!

Tara; I had decided to volunteer with Aidcamps International after seeing a post on Facebook advertising the project. I had for many years thought about doing charity work in developing countries but could not find a way in with issues of work, housing and life getting in the way. This project seemed ideal as it was a short term project with high impact. The circumstances were just right at the time I made the decision weeks after the death of my Mother. I wanted to be free of emotional pressures and life situations at that time and I wanted something meaningful and purposeful that I could be part of. I am not an experienced traveller.  It was a very safe way to travel and see a beautiful country, not as a tourist but as someone who is living within a community and experiencing Cameroonian culture. It was the best decision I have ever made!

We were met at the airport in Douala by our Project Leader, Gillian Wright, who ensured our safe and efficient transport to a local hotel where we met the other 8 volunteers and spent the first night there. This was really helpful as we emerged from our flight tired and somewhat disorientated to find ourselves in a very hectic and busy airport. The next day we travelled to Bamenda by bus to meet the SHUMAS staff, the partner NGO that hosted our visit. Along the way we saw beautiful lush countryside and mountainous scenery as we travelled north, reminding us of Scotland, but much hotter. SHUMAS is a remarkable organisation, providing training courses, workshops and residential facilities for people with differing abilities that would otherwise struggle to survive and live independently.

After a night at La Verda Spiritual Centre, where the nuns were very welcoming, we split into smaller groups and travelled by car to the Mayor's House in Mbiame, our base for the duration of the project. Along the way we had to stop every so often at road check points where guards checked our passports and details. When they were satisfied they dropped the rope road block and let us continue on our journey. After a long journey on dirt roads, we arrived to be met by an amazing group of enthusiastic and affectionate women and children singing and dancing to welcome us. This was quite overwhelming and entirely unexpected. We certainly felt like we had arrived!

So our work on site commenced the next day. We got to know Elvis, Reynard and Oben, the SHUMAS staff we worked with on the school. None of us were expert builders so needed all the help and advice we could get! They soon got us working and were always on hand to offer us the benefit of their wisdom and experience.

There were many highlights during our stay including a visit to SHUMAS' Biofarm, attending a local church service (with traditional drumming & singing), visiting women's groups (where we were again welcomed with singing and dancing), visiting the Fon's palace (N'so tribal leader), the visit to the SHUMAS offices and visiting local markets. Living, working and eating with the other volunteers was great fun and we all had our own duties on a rota, this included cooking on open fires with the local women and SHUMAS staff. On several evenings we had talks about aspects of life in Cameroon, including women's groups, health, education, water, agriculture and the environment. 

At the weekend we travelled in taxis to the Biofarm, this was one of the more relaxing times, we were woken in the morning by the dawn chorus. We had a tour round and learned about sustainable farming methods. We met some of the students whilst there who told us about their aspirations and their studies. We walked and talked and drank beer delivered on a motor bike by a local shepherd. In the evenings we watched the beautiful sunset, then saw the stars and the Milky Way appear against the dark African skies.

On the Sunday we were invited to attend the Harvest Festival at the Baptist Church. This was an amazing experience, there was so much enthusiasm and energy, the costumes and traditional instruments were fascinating. Harvest offerings were donated at the service, including the chickens in the basket who had hitched a ride to the church in our taxi.

Returning to Mbiame on Monday we returned to work as usual, walking to work through the village each morning, being greeted by local people who often gave us gifts of fruit or cabbages. Along the way we met a teacher who helped us at the local market to buy gorgeous materials and introduced us to her tailor who measured us and agreed to make our outfits for the handover ceremony. Throughout our stay we were very impressed by the amount of time, energy and dedication the women contributed to both the project and the wider community.

One of the biggest highlights was the handover ceremony on the last Thursday when everyone came together to witness and celebrate the handover of the school to the local community. This occasion was marked with speeches from the headteacher, staff from Building Schools for Africa (AidCamps' sister charity that had also funded the school), SHUMAS, AidCamps International, the deputy Mayor and the official representative of the Islamic School Association. Followed by more joyous singing and dancing from the women's groups and the children of the school. We were presented with beautifully embroidered traditional robes from Bamenda and then the Fon's representatives placed intricately crocheted hats on our heads conferring the status of 'Shey' upon us. Not to be outdone, our leader was then given the status of Ya'ah (a queen) and crowned with a gold and black version of the crocheted hat. We attempted to give our thanks by speaking in flawed Pidgin and Lamnso – this raised many laughs from the audience but we hoped they knew what we were trying to say! People arrived from all over the village with food to share and we were treated to a feast in one of the new classrooms, along with everyone else at the ceremony.

The next day was also very moving as we went down to the school to sign the building and have our photos taken by the new sign. The children sang to us and before we headed of on our travels we were prayed over by both a Christian and a Muslim leader. It was sad to leave the village and say goodbye. It took more days of travelling before we flew home but that last day in the village is where the project finished.

Sarah; My decision to join AidCamps International was made at a time when I felt I needed a new challenge in my life and I wanted to do something helpful for people on our increasingly small planet. It was certainly the experience of a lifetime and I would recommend these projects for anybody who is willing to suspend judgement and get in there and give it a go. I have returned with a new set of priorities and a new sense of what is important in life. I think everyone involved in these projects benefit in so many different ways.

We subsequently discovered that we are now notables or warriors in the N'so tradition. Apparently this entitles us to attend the UK based gathering of members of the N'so tribe that happens here annually. An opportunity for a reunion maybe?"

Tara and Sarah


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