We are Chris and Christine Broad, and this is the testimonial of our volunteer work in Cameroon, as part of the Cooperative of Handmade Soaps Project (palm oil soap made by the women from Atta).
To reach the village of Atta and its women, you have to take the paved road from Yaoundé to Foumban where you spend the night, then to Bankim. Then, gradually, the pavement gives way to the red and dusty trail that gradually sinks into the Amadaoua bush. We discover with enchantment as we travel the life of the inhabitants of the villages crossed by the track, whose dust blushes when by motorcycle taxis, bush taxis, cars, huge trucks drive while… walkers of all ages pull over without waiting for the horn to sound and warn them.
What a festival of colors and activities: agricultural, domestic, commercial, school, aesthetic whose reduced appearance by ruts and holes allows us to enjoy.
Then, we arrive in Atta, a remote traditional village near the Nigerian border, calm and welcoming. Here several ethnic groups of various religions coexist peacefully, and the village extends along the track. Not far from there, the huge Catholic Mission Park with its church, school, common areas and accommodation. It is where we will be housed, at the bottom of Mount Mambila, after having been welcomed by Philomena, the head of LifeTime Projects in Atta. It is with her and Herwin, LifeTime Projects’ local coordinator, that we will visit the village and in particular the place where the soap is made. This project has been running for a few months, thanks to training and funding from LifeTime Projects, the objective being of course that the manufacturing and sales project will develop sufficiently to become autonomous and profitable in the near future.
For the moment, 6 women are employed (Henriette, 2 Marthe, 2 Emilienne and Angeline) and show us with pride their newly acquired know-how. It was impressive, they handle hot palm oil, filtered water and soda with gloves, masks and safety glasses… It was decided to train each woman at all stages of the manufacturing process. The soap is organic and of excellent quality, it is in fact the essential selling point: “Atta’s handmade palm oil soap, made by the women from the village of Atta”. Today the objective is to make its texture smoother and its final appearance more polished.
During our stay, we will share the hopes of these women. To do this, we must try to improve the volume produced and especially the volume sold by looking for everything that could make the process more efficient despite a very low purchasing power in the region. By increasing sales, women will also increase their incomes and as a result, their daughters will be able to go to school.
We are constantly surrounded, accompanied and pampered by the team that cares about our well-being. We share meals and spend time together every day, between volunteering on the project and visiting the country, which brings a constant dialogue and a real complicity. We have traveled a lot before but this is the most beautiful immersion experience we have ever lived. Even Alimata, a cook from Yaoundé, is busy every day preparing all the meals according to our tastes, it is a cordon bleu that makes us taste all the local sauces! Gombo, n’dolé, pistachio and more! And Gaston, the priest’s trainee, who insists on filling our buckets with water at the well pump when the taps don’t run and even washing our clothes! And Junior and Evrard, the two brothers aged 3 and 6, who are our neighbors in the Catholic Mission and quickly become our interlocutors for playing and drawing.
We let go of our European way of life with bewildering ease. Little by little, we let ourselves be immersed by the human warmth, serenity, courtesy and cheerfulness of the Cameroonians.
One of the other aspects of the project consists in raising awareness about hygiene in order to prevent disease, based on the Phast method, which has been adapted according to the circumstances:
- first of all, we are taking advantage of a meeting of the association Femmes d’Atta (Women from Atta). This intervention will bring about fifty people, including women with their babies, sitting on the ground behind the church and speaking their dialect… Philomène, LifeTime Projects’ member, helps me translate what I am saying… The illustrated cards amuse them a lot and are used as a basis for a discussion about their experiences with diseases and how to protect themselves: by using drinking water and soap!
- then, at the primary school where all the students (about a hundred) were gathered in a classroom. There again, they were able to ask questions. During these discussions, we try to see where they stand with their knowledge about how to avoid getting sick.
Another very fruitful interaction and in both cases, we ended up with practical work: simply washing our hands with soap (from Atta, of course!) using drinking water for several women and their babies, as well as for several schoolchildren. All in a friendly atmosphere, with lots of laughter and applause!
Finally, at the end of Sunday Mass, we spoke again, in French and dialect, to promote Atta’s soap project. An opportunity to remind people of the simple ways to protect themselves against diarrheal diseases, triggering applause once again, and greetings and embraces from many participants as they left the church.
The next step we had prepared was to train a few female volunteers who, in turn, will pass on the methods of protection to their friends or neighbors. Thus, little by little, we hope that prevention will become a systematic reflex that would prevent 60% of child deaths.
During our stay, the team invites us to discover the area. We visited impressive waterfalls/cascades and climbed Mount Mambila (1,800m and 800m of altitude difference), supervised by village guides in a memorable 6-hour hike… Ludo and Herwin still talk about it!!! At the top, a breathtaking view of Nigerian pastures and the village of Atta, and the exotic forest you cross to access it, a mixture of banana trees, palm trees and baobabs…
The climate in Cameroon is delightful in this month of January so grey and humid in France. Hot but not too hot during the day and almost cool in Atta at night because we are at an altitude of 1000 m, and almost no mosquitoes… A total immersion in a magnificent, welcoming, peaceful and colorful country with wonderful inhabitants with whom we have shared countless laughter. It was with a heavy heart that we had to go back to Yaoundé. We had one last debriefing and planning meeting in order to launch the sale of soaps in Yaoundé, especially on the occasion of Women’s Day, then we went back to the plane, listening nostalgically to Charlotte Dipanda’s songs…
See you soon team, see you soon Atta!
Chris and Christine Broad