If you’re unfamiliar with how Pierre and Ellen came to know each other and then to create Against All Odds, go here for the background. Now, they are committed to giving back to Pierre’s home village in central Cameroon by raising money for school supplies and scholarships at each of the elementary schools in Baligham.
In May, Pierre received his four-year engineering degree from SUNY Canton and was accepted into Clarkson University for a masters in engineering beginning fall 2015. We scheduled our trip to Cameroon to fit in during Pierre’s summer break.
We talked the night before our departure.
Remember, Pierre had not been home for four and a half years—every penny was needed to cover his undergraduate tuition expenses.
Now that we had an official organization, AAOOL, and a board of directors, Pierre was appointed Executive Director and we named his brother Ntinwa Job our project manager in Cameroon.
Five of us traveled in late May to Cameroon: Pierre, of course, plus other members of the AAOOL Board (Ellen Rocco, Pierre’s American mom; Laurie Willow, Pierre’s mom #2; Jacob Rotundo, Pierre’s American brother) and Mike Ceresaro, who was living with Pierre and Ellen on the farm in DeKalb, NY.
The airline permitted two check-through suitcases per person, so we filled 10 pieces of luggage with school supplies—pens and pencils, tee-shirts, Frisbees, paper and more, plus some gifts for Pierre’s family. We had ten heavy suitcases plus each of us carried backpacks with personal items. Just getting to JFK in New York, then to our destination in Douala, the commercial capital of Cameroon, was a logistical challenge. A schlep.
We were met at the Douala airport by several of Pierre’s brothers and other family and friends. We spent the first evening at the home of Pierre’s eldest brother and his wife, Vincent and Bernadette. What a welcome! After years of telling his American family about fufu and jamajama, finally we feasted on these traditional dishes, along with domestic beer and much laughter, hugging and storytelling.
A snippet of sound from our first night in Douala, at the bus depot.
After dinner, it was on to the bus station with brothers Festus, Innocent, Job, cousins Samuel, and Benjamin for an overnight ride to Yaounde, the political capital of the country, where Pierre was expected at the US Embassy to renew his student visa.
We spent the day in Yaounde and then took another night bus north to Mbouda, a small city near Baligham in the western part of the country. Here, we were met by more family, including Pierre’s eldest sister, Mama Marie. Supplies for the schools and family were purchased.
The welcome in Baligham involved much of the village. People gathered at Pierre’s family compound. Pierre finally saw his mother and father, stepmother, sisters and brothers after the long separation. Much of the entourage visited the village chief at his palace, and Pierre informed him about the creation of AAOOL and its mission to help bolster the resources of the village’s schools.
The next day, we all visited with family and friends in the village, getting to know each other over more wonderful food and beer. Go here for a slideshow of food from the farm, food in the city.
Our AAOOL group was staying in a hotel in Bamenda, another small city about an hour’s drive from Baligham. It’s only about 15 miles, but the roads to the village are dirt, and easily wash out during the rainy season. The drive took us through amazing landscape—cattle grazing on green hills, beautiful small farms with a variety of vegetables cultivated in companion plantings.
On the third visit to the village, everyone donned the bright green AAOOL t-shirts, we loaded up boxes of supplies for each of the schools, and our van took off on a day-long loop with stops at six schools.
At each school, Pierre explained our purpose and then the headmaster or a teacher would walk to each classroom to bring the students out into the schoolyard, always lined up by grade or class. Pierre would explain to the gathered students that he, too, was born and raised in Baligham and that if he could make a success of his life, so could they.
Pierre is not the first Baligham native to achieve success beyond the life of the village. However, he is one of the few native sons to return with a mission to improve the lot of the children coming up behind him.
We explained to the headmasters that Job would be back to talk with each of them about their most urgent needs, and to explain how scholarships would be awarded.
Jacob tried to learn a young student’s name.
In Cameroon, there is no truly free public education. Typically, in the villages, the cost per child is about $20 a year. Not much for those of us in the US, but a fortune for families who live in a barter culture with very little cash…and multiple children to educate. This means many children never receive any education. Our AAOOL group decided scholarships were a priority. Think of it: $120 will get a child through six years of elementary school.
Ellen told a group of school children about Pierre’s dream to help Baligham schools.
After several days in the Baligham region, we all returned by bus to Douala where we gathered each day at Vincent’s home to visit, get to know each other, and plan the future of AAOOL.
This was about the halfway point in our trip. Ellen asked each of the visitors from the U.S., including Pierre, what they liked best so far.
It was so hard for us to leave. Now, Pierre’s American family has been blended with his Cameroon family and we missed each other even before we boarded the plane home.
Aunt Manyi said goodbye to Ellen.
We are family.