I flew into Douala, Cameroon on Sunday night, Feb 5, 2017 just in time to catch the final match of the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament. Cameroon was playing against the heavily-favored Egyptian team, and the little café where we watched was packed with fans. Unlike in America, EVERY Cameroonian is a soccer (aka football) fan. Egypt was the more polished team, but Cameroon played with incredible heart, and, in the end, Cameroon bested Egypt 2:1. It was an exciting game, but even more fun was witnessing the exuberant celebrations that followed. We had a 3-hour drive to Kumba that night, and in every town we passed through there were mobs of people filling the road dancing, singing, waving flags, pounding on our windows and jumping on the car – not in a threatening way, just in a boisterous desire to include us in the celebrations. As our Project Director, Nakinti, said, “Tonight everyone is a Cameroonian, but tomorrow the ‘war’ will continue.”

The “war” she was referring to was the struggle between the Anglophone and Francophone administrative divisions of the country – a linguistic division resulting from Cameroon’s partition between different colonial powers. The current political power resides with the Francophones, and discrimination against the Anglophone population has escalated in recent years. In protest, Anglophone schools have been on strike for the last two months. Demonstrations led to a military response, tear gas, deaths, and the imprisonment not only of opposition leaders but of those who, due to their professions, constituted a political threat – lawyers, for instance. Internet has been completely shut down in the Anglophone areas to punish and pressure the Anglophones, and that does indeed make life difficult – so much is dependent on computer connections these days. Operation Ghost Town, where people in Anglophone towns cease all economic activity (reminiscent of the Montgomery Bus Boycott during America’s Civil Rights movement) were called periodically during my stay.

We arrived in Kumba at 1:00am to find my hotel was shut down – the owner recently arrested because he is a lawyer. Finally settled in another hotel, I was eager to rest. There was no need to get up early because that Monday was declared a Ghost Town day so our work was on hold until Tuesday. Tuesday morning was busy as I joined the women in the bustling market to shop for all our needs for the next two weeks while the men got new wheels on our SUV to handle the unbelievably rough roads in our project area. It was very late when we arrived in Bai Kuke – the southern end of our projects. It was too late to present me to the village chief, so that would have to wait for morning.

Every village has a chief – someone from the village who is chosen for his dedication to helping and serving the community. Every visitor to the village should be presented to the chief upon arrival. It shows respect to the chief by keeping him informed of the goings on in the community, and it ensures the visitor receives any support needed.

Bai Kuke is where Nakinti grew up. Bold and gutsy, she is the antithesis of a traditional Cameroonian woman. She has a great passion to help the women of Cameroon, and she is fearless as she strides forward to achieve these goals. She will undoubtedly leave a big footprint on her country.

Robota

We only have a few scholarship girls in Bai Kuke, but I enjoyed meeting them. I particularly enjoyed meeting Robota – an orphan whose mother was mentally unstable before she died, who was first taken in by one aunt who died not long after, then was taken in by another aunt who subsequently became blind. Robota is an immense help to her blind aunt who, like Robota, is extremely sweet, positive, and hard-working despite their hardships.

I also enjoyed meeting two scholarship girls from a family Nakinti wrote about in a 2012 Global Press Institute article. A woman died giving birth to her 8th child and, according to Oroko beliefs, she was accused of practicing witchcraft. They believe if a woman dies in childbirth, she must have been practicing swine witchcraft, and the grieving family not only loses their mother/wife/daughter, but the family is stigmatized with witchcraft thereafter. I read the moving story a year ago and it solidified my desire to work in these communities, so I enjoyed actually meeting the girls and seeing the home described in the article.

The biggest project issue we have in Bai Kuke is with an experimental micro-finance project. Funding came from an organization called Global Goats, and I feel responsible for the project’s success, since I know the founder and he supported the project on my request. Due to various misunderstandings among the locals about the nature of a micro-finance project it had come to a complete standstill. I met with the village chief, the church pastor who is organizing the women, and a representative of the women’s groups involved. I think I was able to get things back on track. Time will tell.

From Bai Kuke we travelled north to Mundemba where I toured the only hospital in the whole Ndian region. To call it a hospital is generous. The staff is dedicated, but the facilities were beyond crude. Electricity is rationed and therefore comes and goes, so they are unable to keep blood or any medications which require refrigeration. They have no running water – water is drawn from an open well by a bucket on a rope. There are no wheelchairs to transport patients unable to walk, etc. Over the next year I hope to collect used medical equipment for the hospital.

Girls Lead club participants with their feminine hygiene kits

Finally, we made it to Toko, the heart of our scholarship program and “Girls Lead” clubs. The women of Toko welcomed me by dressing me in traditional Cameroonian garb and we danced and sang to the beat of drums. Afterwards I met with about half the female students from the Toko Secondary school – the rest had returned to villages due to the strike and we couldn’t get word to them about the meeting. To have even half the school is impressive on such short notice. Some girls were even there from Mwendwe – about 8 miles away or 16 miles round trip – a walk the girls do EVERY DAY when school is in session! I spoke to the group, encouraging them to use their educations to help their communities, and I distributed Feminine Hygiene Kits, ensuring all the children knew how to use them. The next day we went to Madie to do the same thing with that school.

With no electricity, running water, or phone service in these communities, communication is done by messengers sent on motor bike. Madie is a smaller community with fewer feeder towns, and our bike messenger thought we only wanted scholarship girls so we only had 8 girls from Madie (out of 10 scholarship girls). I actually appreciated the smaller crowd because it gave me a chance to talk to each girl individually. I am accustomed to children, especially girls, being shy when I first meet them, but normally I can quickly get them to relax and enjoy our interactions. Not so with girls from the Toko Subdivision. They hold their heads down and stare at the floor expressionless – too scared to answer even simple questions like, “What is your favorite food?” I’ve never experienced anything like this.

With only 8 girls in the Madie meeting I decided to push them. After playing a little game in a mostly unsuccessful bid to get them to relax a little, I told them each girl had to answer a question – that I would start with easy questions and the questions would gradually get harder. I started with the shyest girl so she would get the easiest question. I made each girl stand in turn and I held her hands in mine to give her confidence. It took about 5 minutes to coax a simple answer from the first girl – “what is your favorite food?” There isn’t a right or wrong answer, but she was still too scared to answer. Perhaps she thought I would beat her if I didn’t like her answer – an all too common occurrence here. When she finally, fearfully, whispered a response I gave her enthusiastic applause and moved to the next girl. Questions gradually got harder – “What country just won the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament?” (Cameroon), “What is the difference between an alligator and a crocodile?” (they have both in Cameroon), “If you could change one thing about your community, what would it be?”, and, finally, I asked Cordelia, “What are the most common causes of maternal death during childbirth?”

Cordelia is a woman with 8 children who helps as a birth attendant in the surrounding villages. Her life has been very hard, and it was important to her that her daughters receive a good education. As one daughter after another became pregnant in her early teens and dropped out of school, her frustration mounted. Finally, she decided if her children didn’t want an education then she herself would go back to school. At 37 she is our oldest scholarship recipient, and she hopes to receive formal training as a midwife so she can help the village women who so often die in childbirth. Cordelia was not shy like the younger girls, and her eyes teared up as she spoke about the death of women she has tried to help.

One of the things I was able to do on this trip was meet with the health official in Toko and map out a plan for reducing maternal mortality by training traditional midwives. This is the only “medical” care that village women have access to, but midwives have no knowledge of even basic things like hygiene or causes of death during childbirth. Deaths are often attributed to witchcraft. Of the 49 villages in the Toko subdivision, the health official has chosen 9 villages for our pilot. There are a total of about 1500 people living in the pilot villages, and last year there were 10 maternal deaths. He didn’t give me the number of pregnancies so I don’t know what that translates to in terms of maternal mortality, but I did a swag to satisfy my curiosity. If half those villagers are women, and if a third of those are of childbearing age, then there are about 250 women of childbearing age. If the women typically get pregnant every other year, then that would make 125 pregnancies. 10 deaths means about one in 12 or 13 women died. Now consider that women in Cameroon typically have 8 children, so that is 8 opportunities to face those odds. It is a very critical health problem, and I am eager to get our pilot started.

The project work was important, but, for me, the crux of my trip would be my 6-day trek through the jungle visiting remote villages in our project area, including the most remote village of Esukutang. I wanted to meet the people and get a better feel for the lifestyles and challenges facing the communities we were serving. I faced skepticism from the beginning, as person after person tried to dissuade me from the trip. The chief of Esukutang, for example, kept insisting to Nakinti that I would never make it to his village. The District Officer of Toko, when he learned of my plans, pointed to me and said, “You? You are going to trek to Esukutang????” Perhaps most ominous of all was a man who studied me intently for a few moments, then nodded approvingly and said, “You are very brave!”

I consider myself a pretty strong day hiker, but hiking with a pack is a different story. When you put weight on my back, my skinny little legs turn to rubber. As a day hiker I also typically have a week between hikes to recover. Hiking day after day will really tax my old legs. With each successive warning about the trek, I grew less and less confident.

In Mundemba when I was touring the hospital, I asked the hospital supervisor what their greatest need was in terms of medications. “Snake anti-venom,” he said. Two or three people each month come in with venomous snake bites, but they have no anti-venom since they don’t have refrigeration. Most people, he said, don’t even bother coming in since they know there is no anti-venom, so the actual number of snake bites each month is much higher. We can add that to my list of growing concerns for my trek.

Perhaps most discomforting to me were the conversations I had with men over the days leading up to the trek. One man informed me that the way I was sitting (legs crossed with one knee on top of the other) was offensive to Oroko men and I could be fined. I quickly un-crossed my legs. Then he told me that the way I was holding my glass was offensive because I was holding it in my left hand. The left hand, he explained, was the female hand. If I am a female, wouldn’t it be appropriate to hold my glass with the female hand? I was expecting an explanation related to toilet hygiene, but he told me that holding my glass in the left hand was flaunting the fact that I was a female. Holding my glass in my right hand tells my father I am sorry I am a daughter and wish I could have been a son for him. I’m pretty sure my father was not disappointed that I was a girl, but I held my glass in the right hand thereafter.
Even more worrisome, I was told that Oroko men (Toko Subdivision is Oroko territory) beat their wives in order to show their wives love. They claimed that women will sometimes do wrong things to elicit a beating so they will feel loved. Every man nodded in agreement, and I heard similar things in every town. (I didn’t find a single Oroko woman who agreed). In Toko, at a gathering of the “men of standing” in the town and a few of their wives, I heard that, plus I heard that all responsibility for the success of a marriage rests with the wife – the man is not at all responsible for making sure the marriage is good. A real jewel, spoken by one of the school teachers, was, “Women are our pets.” What was I getting myself into?? Would I remember to keep my legs uncrossed? What would happen to me if I didn’t? What other landmines were there that I didn’t yet know about?

The day before I left for the trek was the only time I seriously considered backing out. The highest town official summoned me to his office, and I went, flanked by my friends. He was waiting outside his office with a group of about 5 other men, and they stayed outside as he ushered me in. He explained that it simply wasn’t safe for me to travel through the jungles to the villages. Normally, he said, he could send some troops with me, but with the current political turmoil he couldn’t spare them. I told him I understood and it was okay (and honestly, the last thing I wanted was a cadre of body guards going with me!) But he didn’t let up. He continued to press and explained that if anything happened to me, he would be blamed and would lose his job, and after a while the guilt started to creep in. Was I wrong to go? Was I being stubborn and inconsiderate? I was wavering, but I didn’t want him to know, so I stood firm in his office. I expressed my sincere apologies for putting him in an uncomfortable position but explained I felt I needed to go. I shook his hand before we departed, and held it for a moment, hoping to somehow allay his fears. The men outside eyed us with interest as we left.

When we were out of earshot I expressed my concerns to Nakinti and her two coworkers, and I asked them if I was wrong to do this. “Hummmff,” they replied. “Don’t pay any attention to him,” they said. “He was just fishing for a bribe.” Seriously??? Then they laughed thinking of the faces of the men outside, waiting expectantly for their friend to come out and share with them the spoils of his “conversation” with the rich American. I imagine they were all quite disappointed. They probably thought I had a lot of gall to leave them empty handed, but the truth is, I was genuinely naïve and ignorant. My friends laughed at the joke, but the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. These were HIS people I was trying to help. Why was he fishing for a bribe instead of helping me??

Mama Chief, me, and Ndoh Leonel as we are about to embark on our journey

What was I even doing working here? I didn’t think I liked these people! But as I’ve found with every culture, including my own, the very bad often coexists with the very good. Before long, as is often the case when we bother to get to know those we fear or dislike, my prejudices melted away and I grew to love the Oroko people.

The next morning, I joined the wife of the Esukutang chief, or “Mama Chief” as she is popularly called, and one of his grandsons, 16-year-old Ndoh Leonel, who would guide me through the rainforest in a loop from Masaka to Mufako to Bera, then Esukutang, Ikenge, and finally Mokango. If our worth is measured by how much love and respect we receive from others, then Mama Chief is the most valuable person I have met. Every hut we passed in every village exploded with excitement when people saw her. Every task was momentarily dropped as people ran out to greet her with a big hug. It was a great honor to have her as one of my guides.

A few steps into our trek the vegetation grew very dense and there was a cacophony of insect and bird sounds worthy of Disney’s Jungle Safari ride. The trail was quite rough and uneven, sometimes very rocky and almost always covered with roots and vines and sticks that constantly grabbed at my ankles to trip me. I looked at my young guide in his low-quality flip flops, the heel worn through so there was a big hole, and wondered at his ability to manage such a difficult trail in those shoes. I was thankful for my tennies! Well, at least until we came to our first stream crossing, then second, then third… He and Mama Chief were able to walk right through without pausing. I had to take off my shoes, put on my own flip flops, wade across, dry my feet, put my tennies back on… After several stream crossings it became apparent my footwear would greatly slow our progress, so I decided to stash the shoes. For most of the next three days I hiked in flip flops, but this posed a couple of new challenges.

The morning of our first day of trekking I decided to stir my tub of natural peanut butter to mix the oil on top with the peanut solids that had settled below. This was a far more difficult task than I had expected, and, in the process, I spilled peanut oil all over one foot and flip flop. Despite repeated attempts to clean my sandal with local soap and cold water, the oil remained. Now, on the trek, the oil was creating a challenge for me. Each time we waded through a stream and, invariably, up a hill on the other side of the stream, I couldn’t keep my foot in the sandal it was so slippery!

Worse, the flip flops left my feet unprotected from midge fly bites – insects too small to see, feel or hear, so I didn’t realize they were biting me. After three days I had about a hundred midge fly bites on each foot and about two hundred on each arm. I don’t think midge fly bites are itchier than mosquito bites, but the sheer quantity of bites caused an itch so intense they threatened my sanity! In the end, I switched back to tennis shoes to protect my feet from the midges, and the delay that caused at each stream crossing gave my exhausted legs a brief rest.

Bush meat on its way to market

Except for our first day of trekking from Masaka to Mufako, we saw few others on the trails. On our first day we saw four teens carrying baskets of bushmeat on their heads to sell in town. Bushmeat is the generic term they used for any animal that lives in the jungle, and they didn’t ever seem to distinguish between deer, or armadillo, or… Then we saw two older men from Nigeria (we were close to the Nigerian border) who were journeying to visit a witchdoctor. Finally, one more adult male, also with a basket of bushmeat on his head. Bushmeat, along with cassava and bananas, are staples in the Oroko diet. It is also one of the primary ways they generate money for school fees and other necessities that they cannot acquire from the land. Leonel occasionally pointed out the traditional traps along our trail which consisted of a bent tree with a loop of thin wire attached at one end. In one of the villages I also saw bushmeat as it was being prepared. First it is dismembered, then the hair is burned off, then it is boiled and finally stretched on a round loom to dry.

When we arrived in Mufako, our destination our first night, we went straight to the village chief’s house. I came to learn that travelers – both friends and strangers – are always given food and a place to stay for free in each village. The Oroko have a very well-deserved reputation for hospitality! As visitors, the people of the village wanted to honor us with something special, but, as a vegetarian, I created a bit of confusion. Would I eat bushmeat? No, that is part of the animal kingdom and I just eat from the plant kingdom. How about fish? Animal kingdom. Snails? Definitely animal kingdom! Homemade palm wine? Plant kingdom – it’s good. Exuberant cheers went up! Palm wine has only about 1/3 the alcohol content of regular wine, and visitors are not required to drink more than a couple of sips before sharing the rest with all who are present. Actually, the less you drink yourself the happier they are!

As the men enjoyed the remainder of my palm wine that evening, I enjoyed watching the people of the village gather in social groups around the village. No one stayed home alone but instead spent time each evening connecting with others at the end of a tiring day. After some time in one group, people would rotate to other groups, laughing, telling tales, and just enjoying each other’s company. In most communities around America we have lost this important connection with our neighbors. Many of us don’t even know our neighbors! I think I will make a more concerted effort to connect with some of mine…

On the second day of my trek, I had my first wildlife encounter of the non-insect/bird variety. Thanks to the keen eyesight of my trusty guide, Leonel, he spotted a snake just before I stepped over it. It looked like any other root or vine to me, but it turned out to be not just any snake – it was a black mamba! Black mambas have a reputation as one of the most aggressive and deadly snakes in the world! I don’t know if it would have bitten me, but Leonel laughed and enjoyed the praise I lavished on him for “saving my life.”

Leonel is an amazingly humble and gentle Oroko boy of 16 from Esukutang – grandson to the chief. His skill at navigating through the jungle was as amazing to me as my ineptitude must have been to him. He is a very bright student who loves science and wants to become a doctor. But, like his older brother who dropped out of school and started farming because he knew his poor parents could never afford to pay university fees (about $175 per year), Leonel knows that university studies are beyond reach for even the brightest students from such families as his. Each day that past I grew increasingly fond of this sweet young man.

As we progressed that day – our longest in terms of distance – we periodically saw banana trees along the trail. These exist because a man we met in Mofako carried small trees up the trail and planted them wherever he saw a bit of sunlight. He wanted weary travelers to have a chance to rest and receive nourishment along their journey – his part, he said, to help Cameroon. There is an expression in Cameroon: If you don’t have a crocodile, a lizard will do. Perhaps we can’t all give a crocodile, but we can all give a lizard, and many lizards together can make a big difference.

When we arrived in Bera, our destination for the day, we were given scrumptious pineapple, avocados, bananas… Paradise! The only drawback to this village was the pit toilet. All the homes I visited in the villages and towns of Toko Subdivision had pit toilets behind the houses. Most were constructed with wooden planks stretching across the pit to form a platform to stand on. Typically, there is a gap in the wood – a missing plank – that you can straddle. The toilet in Bera was a little trickier. Instead of a platform, there were two 4 by 4 pieces of lumber stretching across the toilet like two balance beams a foot apart. To use the toilet, you needed to balance with one foot on each beam. I have marginal balance, but I managed to keep from falling into the pit. Glad I didn’t have to tempt fate with more than one day there!

Esukutang

On our third day we reached Esukutang. This is the largest village on our loop – supposedly with one to two thousand people, though it seemed smaller to me. I was surprised, therefore, to find not just one but two churches in this small village – a Presbyterian Church and an Apostolic Church. I don’t know which was first and which was second. I’m sure whomever established the second church was genuinely trying to do a good thing, but I wondered what impact it might have had on their normally cohesive existence. Did the benefits outweigh the potential divisions from denominational frictions? I was therefore very happy to learn that the two churches were working together as a unified body to pray for their country during the current political tensions and strike. Every morning for about 2 hours the villagers would get together to pray and worship before heading out to work. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday they all met together at the Presbyterian Church. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday they all met at the Apostolic Church. What a wonderful lesson we could learn here!

There is a great deal of wildlife in the Cameroon rain forest, but, with the exception of the black mamba and some monkeys that put on a wonderful show jumping from trees on one side of a river to trees on the other, the animals stayed well-hidden. All, that is, except the rats. The houses are typically constructed with walls that end where the roof starts sloping upwards. Each room is therefore open to all the others at the top, and the flat wall tops make perfect pathways for rats to scurry along at night. I did my best to ignore the sound of their activities along with the noises of the goats and chickens in each town.

This young orphan boy, who lived with the family next door, was eager to “protect” me from my night-time visitors. He set up a trap in my room the second night and was quite disappoint he didn’t catch one of my rats.

Normally the kitchen is housed in a separate small building away from the sleeping quarters. I suppose this is to reduce fire danger and also, perhaps, to minimize rat activity in the house. The house where I stayed in Esukutang was unusual because the kitchen was located in the main house – and my bed was in the kitchen. Tired from trekking, I had no trouble falling asleep. Sometime later, though, I was awakened by a rat climbing up my feet. Ack! It scuttled away when I jumped, but I could hear rats all around me, busy exploring every inch of the kitchen. I decided that, despite the lack of mosquitos this time of year, the mosquito net might give me some peace of mind. I swept away rat poop from beside me that was not there when I went to bed and tried to tuck the netting around the bed. I managed to get it tucked around three sides of the bed, but it didn’t reach on the fourth side. I tried to relax and ignore the boisterous activity around me, but, despite being ¾ protected, I couldn’t get back to sleep for many hours.

With a rest day and second night in Esukutang, I decided to re-hang the mosquito net so it would hang lower and tuck around all sides of my bed. I did not look forward to the rat activity I would undoubtedly hear that second night, but at least I had the assurance that I would be safely inside the mosquito net. I learned several things that second night. Lesson One: If a rat is on the rafters above your bed, its pee will come right through the mosquito net. Lesson Two: A mosquito net will not keep rats out of your bed. It can, however, trap a rat inside with you. Lesson Three: I am too old for these trips.

Where we bathed and collected water to drink

Continuing on our journey, we made it to Ikenge. As with all the other villages, baths are taken in the cold river water. The cold water felt absolutely lovely on my tired and itchy feet and ankles, a bit uncomfortable on my thighs, and downright miserable on my sensitive stomach and back. As with everything else about life in these villages, baths are a social affair. Women and children all gather together to bathe and wash clothes. As a rather modest American woman I found it a bit uncomfortable to have an audience of children who wanted to see a “white man” take a bath, but I enjoyed the laughter and animated conversations around me as villagers enjoyed their time together.

That evening we visited a few men in a hut that were helping us identify scholarship candidates. We discussed what made a good candidate and how the program worked. After our discussion they departed and later reappeared to excitedly present me with 6 small packets of gin – each plastic packet probably the equivalent of a shot. This is not something I would ever consume, and secretly I was dreading adding even an ounce of weight to my pack, but it was such a sweet gesture I simply had to take the packets. I didn’t want to hurt them by rejecting the gift.

When we got back to the chief’s house it suddenly dawned on me that, in my exhaustion, I had forgotten everything I had learned about Oroko culture. When I was presented the gift I was supposed to give it back to the group so everyone could share. To make sure, I asked Leonel, and he confirmed that I had indeed goofed. He said it wouldn’t be appropriate to go back to the hut at that point, and I felt so stupid! The next morning, however, I had to meet the men back at the hut to get the list of names they had collected. While there, I informed the men I had a gift for them, and I pulled out the packets of gin. They had a great laugh – thought it was a wonderful joke – and at 7am they enjoyed their gin while we were served a hearty meal to send us on our way.

The map we used on our last day of the journey

It is probably good I didn’t speak the local language so I didn’t hear the conversations that took place the night before in Ikenge. Mama Chief wanted to take a trail that goes directly from Ikenge to Mokango rather than going to Mufako (where we had spent our first night) and retracing our first day trek back to Masaka. The direct trail is a bit shorter and we would be continuing in a loop without retracing steps so I would see more of the jungle. Unbeknownst to me, however, the villagers urged Mama Chief to reconsider because the trail was no longer used and was getting overgrown. They feared we would get lost because the trail was so difficult to follow. Leonel had never been on the trail before, and Mama Chief had only travelled it twice in her sixty years. She was adamant, however, so the one man who still occasionally used the trail drew us a crude map.

I was tired, itchy, and emotionally spent so was eager to complete the trek. The trail was so overgrown in some stretches that I couldn’t tell the trail from the rest of the jungle, but I just plodded obediently behind Leonel while Mama Chief brought up the rear. It was a demanding trail and my legs were really spent, but the remote trail rewarded us with many bush pig and elephant footprints. I may have been running on fumes at this point, but I knew I could dig deep and finish. Or so I thought until I realized we were lost. I thought we should go back to our last known point, but Leonel and Mama Chief thought they could find the trail if they searched, so we started wandering further and further into the jungle as they scanned for a footprint or broken branch that might indicate the trail.

I do not fear death, but the process of dying is a different story. Let me die in an instant in a car crash, but don’t let my death be slow and torturous. The jungle is so disorienting with its thick vegetation that perhaps we could walk in circles until my legs gave out. With insects gradually consuming my flesh, I wondered how long it would take to die. Such fears were taking root in my mind when Leonel claimed he found the trail. It looked to me just like everything else we had been wandering through, but he was right – it did turn into the trail. Several more times we got “lost” but I turned off my mental imaginings and followed obediently behind my amazing guides.

By the time we got to the long, steep Alo Alo hill, only 3km separated us from “civilization” – the tiny village of Mokango which consisted of a few mud huts with no electricity or running water or cell phone service. It did, however, have a road leading out of it and, with luck, we would find a couple of motorbikes for hire that could take us “home”. In the village, in typical Oroko fashion, people brought out chairs so we could rest our weary legs, and a woman prepared for us a free meal of cassava mush to help us regain our strength while we waited for motorbikes to appear in the village.

Over the course of my week’s journey I grew to really love the Oroko people. They taught me much. I will, admittedly, be happy to escape the midge flies and rats as I return to a life with easy access to health care and a husband who shows his love with fresh blueberries and raspberries in the fridge on my return, but I will miss the communal spirit and great care they give to one another. I hope to honor them in the future by extending Oroko hospitality to all visitors who happen past my “hut” in America.