Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Roofing the Church, Part 1

Companion synods have regularly come to Cameroon (South Dakota synod) and Central African Republic (North Dakota – East or West or Texas/Louisiana/Gulf Coast synod) to help churches put roofs on their newly constructed buildings.  Congregants collect building materials (sand, etc.) buy cement (or is it concrete?), make cinder blocks or mud bricks, build the foundation, and then raise the walls. 

The US churches pay for wood for the rafters and the corrugated tin for the top.  Then a group from the US comes to help with the roofing process.  Just such a group came to Cameroon last week.  They worked on two roofs, one not too far from Tibati and the other, at Garoua-seeye Church here in Garoua Boulai.  12 South Dakotans came along with Phil Nelson (financial administrator who lives in N’gaoundéré and who has lots of experience with this program), Denis (driver), and some carpenters (also from N’gaoundéré).  These latter stayed in the neighborhood near the church, but the guest houses were full with the other 14! 

I helped with the logistics – arranging for some local women to make the food and making sure there were enough guest house beds.  Originally, they were to come Monday, February 17, but there was some fighting just over the CAR border Sunday evening.  Although calm came back immediately and Garoua Boulai was not directly affected, organizers decided they would go to Tibati first instead of second to be sure all was safe (especially because the church is only a short distance from the border).  The group arrived in GB on Fri.  That meant, though, that the caterers had some food that had already been bought and that couldn’t be saved for three days.  Instead of having it spoil, we sent bananas and plantains (the kind of bananas that have to be cooked) to the church where carpenters and volunteers were working on preparing the rafters.  Waste not, want not, right?

Once the group arrived, they ate breakfast and dinner at my house (with food from the caterers who also washed the dishes) and lunch at the church.  Lots of people in and out – but interesting and fun.

Saturday was the first full day of work.  Workers used tools you would expect, including power tools – run by a generator. 

I didn’t go with the group to the church, but about an hour later the Director of the Bible School and I went over to see the progress and take some pictures.  Just as we were leaving, there was a huge crash!  All of the rafters tilted over and fell into the church.  Wow.  There hadbeen about 5 Cameroonians up on top nailing boards in place and about 10 others (from the US and Cameroon) inside preparing rafters.  It was a miracle – no one was seriously injured.  We did take about 5 people to the Protestant Hospital for the Dr. Solofo to check.  Mostly scrapes and bruises, one twisted ankle, and one American who got a nasty lump on the back of his head and another on his arm.  (Later he was taken to N’gaoundéré (since the x-ray machine in GB is not working and kept in the hospital for observation for a night to be on the safe side.  He is fine although a bit sore!)

As the rafters fell in the two long walls broke from the foundation and were tilting in.  Immediately, workers put supports for one of the leaning walls, brought the rafters down to the ground (and they can be reused), and then pulled down the other leaning wall.  Later, the second wall was also taken down.  Now congregants need to get more supplies, make more cinder blocks and rebuild. Later the roof will be added, though the South Dakotans will not be there to help.

How could this have happened?  There were many factors, some of which I am sure I don’t know, but I can repeat theories I have heard.  There had been some wooden supports holding the rafters at one end that were removed early because they needed the wood for something else.  Also, this church is to be the largest in GB.  It seems that the workers didn’t know how to support longer walls well.  The rebar probably should have been thicker; the foundation should have gone deeper; and pillars or other supports should have been planned.  

Everyone was glad that the collapse happened now and not later when the church was full of congregants!  It is certainly a major setback, but everyone is determined to rebuild and complete the church.

Sunday service was held in the old building (beside the one being built).  People were happy to have the South Dakota visitors, but as several Cameroonians said, everything was much more subdued than the singing, dancing, and celebrating that had been planned. 

Still, each time the incident/problem is discussed (often here in GB!) people first thank God that no one was seriously hurt and that the problem was discovered before a catastrophe happened.  So, this was Part 1 of the roofing of the church for Garoua-seeye.  Part 2 will come, but sometime in the future – by the grace of God.

Since the visitors had some extra time Monday, they got to visit the nearby (Lutheran) Protestant Elementary and Middle Schools and the Bible School.  We also went to the market for some to buy cloth which was made into dresses/shirts.  And, some were able to buy paintings/banana leaf pictures by local artists and some wood carvings.  The group left Monday for N’gaoundéré where they helped unload the container (sent by Global Health Ministries and full of medical supplies and other gifts from the States).  They are currently visiting a game park before they take the train back to Yaoundé and fly home. 

I have sorted gifts they left for churches and the hospital, put the house back in order, and gone back to my “regular” life! 

Sunday, February 16, 2014


I have always had a healthy respect for fire – and a certain fascination with it.  Watching flames (of a candle or fireplace) can be calming and beautiful.  I cook on a gas stove (here and in Pittsburgh before I came.)  On the other hand, having a huge fire near your house is much more of a concern!

This is the dry season, so, as I mentioned last year, people burn the brush.  Again, this year, I asked why.  I got some of the same answers as last year.  It is the tradition and it cleans up an area.  Those who hunt field rats do it to chase out the animals to kill.  Having no underbrush makes hunting easier.  And, for herders, burning the brush clears the way for the growth of tender shoots which the animals like.  Most of those answers do not apply for the area around my house.  Yet, this afternoon, someone burned the area behind the house.  I watched mesmerized – and hoping that the flames would not cross the very short, dry grass between the fire and my house.  It didn’t get out of control and didn’t burn everything.  Taller, greener plants and trees remain.  

 Here are some photos.  I could hear the cracking before I could see many flames.  Then it would seem to die down a little until it hit another big clump of dry brush.  Flames were often 10-15 feet in the air!  In the US we would have been working to put it out.  In about 30minutes, an area the length of a football field was burned.  (I don’t know how wide the area was since I didn’t want to go closer to investigate!)

Still, not all burns are this successful.  If the wind picks up (which it often does in this season), the fire can go in unexpected directions and get out of control.  Two of the Village School Program villages had such a problem.  In the first case, one of the teacher’s children died in a house when the brush fire got out of control and burned the house.  In the second village, the “hangar” (the open-sided classroom with a thatched roof) burned.  The parents cannot yet rebuild it because the whole area burned and there is no grass to use as thatch until the rains come again.   Fortunately, parents were able to save the chalk boards and student table/benches.  They have made an arrangement with the local Lutheran church to hold classes inside until repairs can be made.  (You might think that classes could still be held outside because it is not currently raining, but the sun is too hot!)

I wonder about the environmental impact of these fires.  In addition to the bush, people also burn some trash and piles of leaves.  (No, leaves don’t fall as cold weather comes, but they do fall because of dryness.)  In the USA, people used to burn trash and leaves.  Most communities now have ordinances against burning – to protect property and the environment, I think.  On the other hand, the forest service often now allows natural fires to burn without trying to put them out – as a natural part of forest life.  I wonder if anyone has studied the effects of burning the bush in Central Africa to determine its pros and cons.  I know that it is the tradition here and would be hard to change if research recommended it – despite occasional tragedies. 
Fortunately, during the fire near my house most of the smoke blew the other way.  Fortunately, too, it served its purpose without getting out of control.  I will end by saying that I was fascinated to watch the fire.  Maybe I was just thinking of those of you in cold climates who might be sitting by a fireplace fire on these very snowy, cold days where you are!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Parade for Youth Day

Today is Youth Day.  It is
 a national holiday and there was a parade.  It seems a little strange that I am in the same place this year as last year.  I know, for most people that isn’t so unusual, but the year I had last year seemed to include many different “homes.”  I am happy that I am putting down some roots – at least to the extent that I went to the Youth Day parade in Garoua Boulai both last year than this year!

So, I couldn’t help but compare last year and this year.  Similarities: Lots of people.  Lots of people selling food: hard-boiled eggs, bananas, oranges, pineapple, coconut, beignets (a kind of doughnut), grilled meat on a stick, ice cream (well, at least it looked like ice cream and was sold in cones and kept in a cooler – I wouldn’t eat any because it is probably full of amoebas), even apples, and then other foods, some of which I recognized...

The official start time was 8:30, but realistically, officials don’t arrive until about 10 with the activities about an hour later.  First there was a taped speech from Paul Biya, President of Cameroon. (I couldn’t hear it because I was too far away and even up closer, the sound system is distorts voices pretty effectively.)  There were traditional dancers who performed for officials who sat on the reviewing stand.  Students from each school wore uniforms of the same color.  They lined up across from the reviewing stand initially.  Later, they all lined up along the parade route – youngest to oldest.  Lots of sun!

But in some ways, this year was different, too.  I swear there was more dust.  I mean February is always the dry season, but I don’t remember quite so much dust blowing around with the wind and kicked up by so many feet.  (It’s hard to take a picture of dust…) Last year I went with a friend and observed.  This year, I went with the students from the Bible School, so I stood with them – and marched with them.  I took my umbrella this year (parasol, really) and was glad to have it.  I also took water, but didn’t want to drink too much at any one time because I knew I couldn’t easily find a toilet!  I have been drinking lots of water since I came home.

The Bible School students had uniforms made.  They invited me to have one made, too.  The material is a dark green and very smooth.  A quality fabric.  The uniform consists of a shirt and pants or skirt. 

Note:  I don’t understand the fashion world and tailors who won’t make pockets for most women’s clothes!  The men got 6 pockets each (3 in the shirt and 3 in the pants).  We women got ZERO!  The tailor said that he couldn’t put them in the shirt because they wouldn’t lay right with breasts.  I might believe that for the breast pocket (but not really since I have other shirts with a pocket there), but for the ones at waist height for the shirt and side pockets for a skirt?  Even a back pocket on the skirt would have worked! 

We are, however, getting pockets.  Both Marie’s and my skirts were too long.  We had to roll them up to be able to walk.  (Yes, my continuing frustration with tailors in Cameroon.)  Still, the clothes were OK for the parade.  We went back afterwards and the tailor will fix the length and add pockets, but just two. 

I caused a bit of a sensation marching with the Bible School students.  The Director and other two professors sat in the reviewing stand.  The students were very interested in having me march with them, so I agreed.  As we went up the parade route and past the reviewing stand, numerous people greeted me, commented, or reached out to shake my hand/touch me.  Later, the director told me that the people in the reviewing stand applauded as we passed.  My presence? Or, maybe it was only because we had such great outfits and marched so well!

OK.  I did my “duty” and caused a bit of a stir, but I still don’t like parades!  I would have been more than glad to stay home and relax.  Maybe I can arrange to be out of town for parades in the future.  There will be parades in whatever town I visit, of course, but since I don’t live there, I won’t feel obligated to go… 

Or, maybe you can convince me that parades are necessary and fun.  Why don’t you write to me about your parade experiences? 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Feet and Snakes

So, it's Ground Hog Day! Did the Punxatauny Phil see his shadow?  How much more winter will there be in the US?  Obviously, my mind has turned to mundane things today. 

I have also been thinking about feet.  Since I live in a place there many roads and paths are dirt and it is the dry season, there is lots of dust.  I can just imagine what the dust was like in Jesus’ time in Galilee and Judea – desert areas with no paved roads.  No wonder the Bible talks about washing feet. 

I have found that I need wash my feet at the end of the day before I got to bed.  They are filthy, true and need to be cleaned, but feet-washing is relaxing and calming, especially when I then rub in some cream (to counteract the dryness.) 

In Bible times, it was common to wash a traveler’s feet when s/he arrived at a destination.  Imagine how dusty and dirty they would have been after walking long distances on unpaved roads.  Imagine, too, how welcome and relaxing it would be.  But who did the washing?  Servants, no doubt, or a lowly person in the household.  When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, they protested.  He insisted to indicate that our role as Christians is to serve others, not demand to be served by them.  I can’t help but think of this scene as I regularly wash my feet.

I have a new appreciation for feet washing and what it symbolizes!  (In the rainy season, there isn’t the dust, but there sure is a lot of mud.  Feet still need to be washed!)

I have also been thinking about snakes.  When I went to the Bible School for the morning meditation earlier this week, the director showed me the snake they had found and killed.  It had been hiding in the small crack/hole by the entry door.  They used gasoline to get it out and then burned it.  One of the students said to be careful because the venom in the head was still dangerous.  (Those of you who know about snakes, is that true?)  I had no desire to touch it, but one of the other students poked it with a stick.

This is the first snake I have seen even though I know they are around.  This is the (very good) reason that people keep the area around their houses clear of grass – snakes are less likely to be there and then get into the house!  High grass during the rainy season gives them more places to hide, but they are obviously around during the dry season, too.

All of the first shipment of humanitarian aid (rice and oil) has arrived in Bouar.  Getting the 2 truckloads across the border took time, but it’s now done.  Patrick and Antoine have now been working to get it distributed.  A drop in the bucket, but a very necessary drop. 

Violence continues in the country although Baboua is calm again.  Bouar is on one of the roads that heads north toward Tchad so it has had more looting problems as ex-Seleka have moved through the area.  Bangui and other towns in that area (and along that main route north) continue to be plagued with many difficulties.  Please continue to pray for peace.  March 9 has been selected as a Sunday when all churches (and mosques) are asked to pray for the Central African Republic – its displaced people, those in fear in villages, the newly formed government, and the rebels and perpetrators of violence and looting.  Add your voices, please. 

Remember I wrote before about my theory of teleporting ants?  I have more evidence…  The water filter I have in the kitchen has several parts.  The top part is filled with water that goes through the dome-like ceramic filter (and then other filters) to produce drinkable water.  I have found ants on the top of the ceramic filter.  How did they cross the moat of water to get there??  They can get into that part of the filter because the lid does not have a tight seal.  I can understand dead ones that might have been in the water when I added more water so they floated onto the filter, but the live ones that are still crawling around?!? Teleportation.  It has to be.