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A well is a little idea with big impact

Congregational leader visits Providence Associate’s ministry in Cameroon

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Marie-Therese Gnamazo, PA
Editor’s note: Marie-Therese Gnamazo, of Cameroon, lived for a time with Sister Karin Dufault and others while she was in Seattle for a Come and See experience with the Sisters of Providence. Marie-Therese later became a Providence Associate and returned to her native country to live out the mission of Providence while helping people there. In late December, Sister Karin, now congregational leader of the Sisters of Providence, traveled to Cameroon with Sisters Annette Noel and Rejeanne Turcotte.

Sister Karin and Marie-Therese met again on December 29 at the airport in Yaoundè, where they warmly embraced. “She looks terrific and it was a surprise and a joy to see her,” Sister Karin reported. The travelers were being met by Father Emanuel Mbock Mbock of Afrique Future as well as Sister Jean d’Arc. Sister Karin and Marie-Therese would catch up together again on January 2, on the heels of Sr. Karin’s visit with the archbishop of Obala, after a ceremony to receive new Providence Associates and other congregational business.

by Congregational Leader Karin Dufault, SP

Marie-Therese Gnamazo, PA, sees the face of God in the poorest of the poor and responds with the little she has. She is resourceful in finding people who can help.

In Cameroon, the name of the organization she founded while in Seattle is incorporated as "African Solidarity in Action." It is this organization that saw the great need in Lomiè for a water well for the people. The well in the center of town had dried up and people had to walk miles for water to the well outside the town. Water is in very short supply in many of the villages and towns. Marie-Therese and others negotiated the contract with workers from Yaounde and she supervised construction of the well.

Marie-Therese with friend.

On January 2, Father Emmanuel's driver, Eloi, and Marie-Therese met us at the Obala diocesan offices and I left with them for a 3-hour-plus ride to Abong-Mbang, which is considered East Cameroon. Along the way Marie-Therese explained about the difference between the east and west of Cameroon. The east is a much poorer area than the west and is often neglected by politicians in terms of resources.

The roads are poor most of the way and deeply rutted. Small villages are between dense bush and forest areas. Logging is taking place without replacement of trees in its dense forest. Most villages do not have electricity and many have far to go to fetch water from wells or streams.

We arrived in Abong-Mbang, the largest city of the region, where Marie-Therese was living with her mother and youngest sister and family. She made arrangements for us to stay with the cloistered Poor Clare sisters. Marie-Therese knows the Poor Clare sisters well and it was clear they appreciate her.

After breakfast on January 3 we left for Lomiè, picking up Marie-Therese's brother Dieudonnè Medang and colleague Bertrand Bekono, who helped her build the well in Lomiè. Our first stop was to drop off a Christmas package for two little girls and visit with their mother, who looked as though she might have spina bifida. She was sitting on a log, extracting seeds from a gourd and drying them on a fabric on the ground. The woman was severely bent. To get to her "wheelchair" (really a cart), she crawled, raising herself to sit on the seat.

Marie-Therese had met this woman at church in Abong-Mbang. She befriended her and learned she was trying to earn money to support her children by selling cigarettes. The woman was living with the children in terrible conditions, without even a bed to sleep on. The children’s fathers had abandoned her during her pregnancies. Marie-Therese helped improve the woman’s living conditions, but encouraged her to return to her village since she was being exploited in Abong-Mbang. Marie-Therese continues to be in touch with her and the children. My heart ached for this woman, realizing that had she had the right healthcare at birth, she probably would have had a very different life.

Visit at Pygmy village

Marie-Therese with Pygmy villagers.

Our second stop was at one of several small villages where Pygmy people live. Marie-Therese had ministered in 1999 with Father Paul, a Holy Spirit priest, to one of these Pygmy villages. She spoke with the people to assure that it was okay for us to visit with them. They were gracious and showed us two of their grass huts.

All the children gathered around us -- each wearing a brown T-shirt-like top – and we greeted them. Their lives appear to be very hard and they are obviously very poor with little to sustain them except for their love and whatever they can forage from the bush. The elders looked aged way beyond their years.

Along the way we occasionally saw rivers or streams where women were washing their clothes and children and adults were bathing. Some were drawing water from the same river in large pans or buckets. Many were walking along the road with buckets or baskets on their heads. Baskets held sticks for firewood or a root vegetable, manioc. Many women carried their babies on their backs while balancing the buckets on their heads.

The well at Lomiè

Once we reached the Lomiè area, we first went to the little home of an elderly woman that Marie-Therese had befriended after seeing the very poor conditions in which she was living with some family members. The home was a structure that had no protection except for some material hanging down. Marie-Therese convinced her brother and niece to help put clay between some wood to enclose the structure. The woman sleeps on blankets on the floor. She sees Marie-Therese as a daughter and loves her dearly.

The well in Lomiè became operational just this past September. The well pump has a lock, and the times that the well is available – morning, afternoon and evening -- are known by all so that the well has an opportunity to "rest" in between. A local group is responsible for taking care of the well and is serious about doing the job responsibly. It was a joy seeing the people lined up to use the well. A sign near the well states that the Sisters of Providence, Mother Joseph Province, and African Solidarity in Action contributed to the well.

A crowd gathers at the new well.

As we approached the well, a crowd gathered, apparently because the word went out that we were there. The assistant to the mayor was there, along with the chairperson of the committee that tends to the well, some members of Marie-Therese's family and many people who use the well. Formal thank yous were expressed and photos were taken. We later learned that the assistant to the mayor, with whom Marie-Therese had communicated that we were coming, did not tell the mayor, Jestin Assama Mbongo, about the visit and he was out of town.

The chairperson only learned about it that day. The mayor was very upset about not being there and once he learned about it he returned and wanted us to stop by his office before we left town. After dinner, we did stop to visit and he gave us a beautiful letter of appreciation with the city seal on it. He apologized because we were not received in the traditional African style, with singing and the dancing of the children. From the greetings at the well, we drove to the home of Marie-Therese's niece and family for a lovely dinner with foods and dishes I had never eaten before, including a dried fish-cake-like dish, manioc like I had seen the children selling, banana dishes, and a dish made with antelope. It was clear the family had been preparing for a long time and I felt guilty that they had used their scarce resources to provide such a feast. Before we left, Marie Therese's family, including two sets of twins, asked to take a picture with me, which was delightful. The children are very precious!

After saying our thanks and farewells, we hiked back to the road where we left the car. We headed back to town to pick up a big gunny sack of manioc given to the family by Marie-Therese’s older sister Edith. Before doing so, we made our stop at the mayor’s office.

Sr. Karin views the old well.

On the 78-mile drive back to Abong-Mbang on a rutted dirt road, we stopped at the little village area where Marie-Therese has relatives, including an aunt and cousins. I saw the tiny house where she was born and her family lived. Unfortunately, her mother had to move to the city of Abong-Mbang to live with her youngest daughter and family when the bishop of the area informed her mother that the house was on diocesan land and was needed.

After passing the house, we continued on a steep downhill hike on a small path to what she called a "well." It was a pipe sticking out of a concrete slab that had a wooden plug in it. A child came with a pail as we stood there, removed the plug and water came out. Right near the "well" was a creek. People from the area come here for water and to bathe and wash their clothes. It is really hard to imagine that people survive under the daily conditions of life that they face. Such is not the exception; it is the rule for them.

The pump well that African Solidarity in Action provided in the town of Lomiè is making a huge difference in the lives of the children and women, especially, since they are the ones who had to walk so far in order to get any water for the family.

The experience was profound for me. Marie Therese was also touched during the encounters with the people she was reunited with and those she met for the first time.

The night journey brought us past the many poor houses we had seen in the daytime, but the only lights we saw were the occasional fires burning in or outside the houses for cooking and heating. No electricity for miles and miles. It was only when we reached Abong-Mbang that we saw electric lighting.

The next morning after breakfast we went to Marie-Therese’s sister’s home to visit with children in the area. On the way we drove past the hospital, the local church, the public building and other sites Marie Therese wanted us to see. Then we arrived at the home of Marie Therese's youngest sister Laurentine, where her mother lives. Also helping were Marie-Therese's older sister Francoise and a cousin. While Marie-Therese has a dream of having a physical building as the center of this ministry, they do not have the funds for a building, so Laurentine's home is currently where the children gather.

At the home of Marie-Therese's sister, a group of children welcomed the travelers.

The children that are a part of Marie-Therese and her family’s ministry project had gathered in the front of the house along with a few of their mothers and grandmothers. The children are orphans, or from broken homes and very poor families. Some had been on the streets or were living with family members other than parents. One of her cousins was there, a young widow who has seven children.vSome are in the university and others are in high school.

The children began singing as we greeted each one. They were dressed in their best clothes and were proud of the English words of greeting they spoke. They had me sit on a chair on the porch with Marie Therese's mother and Eloi, and then began the program they had prepared. A boy, probably about 8 years old, spoke perfectly the prepared French greeting. He spoke each word slowly but with great feeling, and I was very happy to understand everything. He gave me a copy of the greeting and after the songs and dancing, each child carefully signed the paper, which I will send to Mother Joseph Province since the sisters and associates have contributed to this ministry.

After the little boy read the statement, there was clapping, singing and the sounds of joy that are characteristic of the Cameroon. I was able to record and video some of it with my iPhone to share with the sisters. The children are so beautiful and even the smallest was able to dance with great rhythm. The adults joined in the dance and I joined them with great delight. When the music stopped, Marie Therese said that several of the adults (mothers/grandmothers) wanted to greet me. They did so bearing gifts of bottles of peanuts and fruit (papayas). I was humbled to receive these gifts, recognizing the great poverty in which they live, but I accepted them with gratefulness.

Afterwards, we went inside Laurentine's home, where dinner had been prepared for us. We were introduced to other members of the family and I had a chance to express to Marie-Therese's mother our appreciation for what Marie Therese and their family are doing to help others. Marie-Therese's mother is 74 but looks as though she were no younger than 90. She has lived a difficult life and has not been well. She worked very hard for her six children after the death of her husband. Access to health care is only available to those who can pay, even in the public hospitals.

Marie-Therese’s mother presented me with a package in Christmas wrapping given on behalf of the family. Two beautiful scenes of Cameroon were enclosed, each one a collage made from woods and grasses. One also had a map of Cameroon. Lovely gifts!

The dinner was tasty and again lots of food generously provided and nicely served. One cousin ate with us and the remainder of the family ate without a table in a room separated from us by a light curtain.

We said our goodbyes to everyone and prepared to leave for the ride back to Yaoundé. We were pretty quiet on the way home. I think we were each absorbed in our own thoughts and prayers related to all we had seen and experienced.

Providence of God, we thank you for all.

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