At the Heart of Guiwa
Yesterday we traveled to Guiwa, a town in southeast Cameroon that is host to approximately 4,100 refugees from the Central Africa Republic, spanning across three refugee sites. Of those, 2,500 have been here since 2004 and 1,600 have arrived since 2014. Those who have been here since 2004 mainly live integrated with the local community, while those from 2014 still primarily live amongst themselves, split into two sites.
In order to get to Guiwa, we stayed one night in the bustling town of Bertoua where the UN Refugee Agency regional office is located. From Bertoua, we drove along a very nice paved road for about an hour. The entire drive was through beautiful, dense, tropical vegetation. The scenery was breathtaking. We passed two security checks—also known as a long piece of bamboo or a flimsy piece of wood resting on a stack of big tires. Young men in police or military uniforms casually carrying AK-47s lazily eyed us, sometimes asking for passports, other times waving us on. The bamboo was raised and lowered by a boy no more than 12 years of age.
Along the way, homes made of wood, mud, and brick dotted the side of the road. Women walked along the road with babies on their backs while balancing wood, platters of peanuts, or buckets of water on their heads. Their perfect posture and balance would make any practitioner of yoga envious. We passed children playing barefoot with toys made of tin cans, old tire tubes, and wooden sticks, oblivious to the cars and motors zipping by; and men sitting in small groups, taking cover under the shade of a tree or shed.
We arrived at one of the three refugee sites and I had to ask a couple times to clarify that this was, in fact, a refugee site. There were no big humanitarian signs and no security personnel to check-in with. It’s a small grouping of homes that we could have driven right by without noticing. As soon as we stepped out of the truck, we were welcomed by the President of the refugee community. The area was quiet. Some children were playing and women were sitting outside their homes, but besides that there was no major activity. I noticed that I didn’t hear the usual call from children, “White person! White person!” I was curious as to why they don’t have that habit while those in eastern Chad do. Some women passed by on their way to the water point. I smiled and said “Bonjour!” They cracked a smile and greeted me.
We entered a small, dark, wooden shelter that housed rows of benches on a dirt floor. It looked as if it was meant to be a small classroom. This was to be the setting of our first official meeting with the leaders and representatives of this community. For the next hour and a half, we would have a wonderful discussion about the community, their needs, their strengths, their spirit, and iACT’s programs.
“I deprive my stomach [of food] to give my children education,” said Yalonde, a mother at the meeting. Yalonde explained that instead of preparing meals for herself, she sells her food in order to have enough money to pay tuition for her children to attend the better of the two schools in this community. The President described his people as “doers,” adaptable and hospitable, and stressed the importance of education and social cohesion among refugees, locals, and Christians and Muslims. His colleague, Yanick, would describe their community as “dynamic and strong.” They were so receptive to our programs and our approach, but more importantly, they asked great questions. Every aspect of our programs was questioned. If we forgot to mention a key detail, somebody would ask about it. It was so heartening to be speaking with such an engaged group and diverse voices.
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