Shipments impounded in a West African port, customs officials on the take, visits with tribal rulers, financing college educations for young-adults from a formerly-nomadic tribe: this could be the outline for an interesting screenplay, but for environmental science and engineering graduate students Leah Feazel and Andrew Nelson, it describes a significant portion of their summer.
A chance encounter on a bike path in Boulder with a University of Colorado philosophy professor set things in motion. Feasel was already superficially acquainted with Ajume Wingo, a native of Cameroon, but when their conversation shifted to Wingo’s home, Feazel and Nelsons curiosity was peeked. They had already discussed traveling to Africa during the summer break, but they werent looking for a vacation: “We wanted to find a way that we could help,” says Feazel, whose Quaker parents encouraged her to think this way from a young age.
“For [my parents], anything you can do to promote the physical or spiritual wellbeing of someone else is what you should do,” she says. “It’s not something you should do if you have time. It’s just what you should do.” At Christmas, Feazel was offered a choice between a present or a donation to charity. “It got to be sort of a game,” she says. “I’d get a dozen chicks that would get donated to somebody for Christmas. It was just really fun.” Living by a similar creed, her grandparents saw a constant stream of people pass through their remote ranch on the Western Slope. “It was an anyone-is-welcome sort of a place,” she says.
Nelson, whose parents are both university professors, grew up with a similar set of values. In addition, he’s wanted to go to Africa ever since getting to know several African friends while attending high school in Geneva, Switzerland. They spoke of Africa with such enthusiasm and passion, he recalls. Familiar with the poverty of many countries, it was also a region where he could make a positive contribution.
It was Wingo who had the idea of taking bicycles to Cameroon to sell. Bikes are prized in Cameroon’s port city of Douala, where gridlock makes traveling by car difficult. A little research showed computers were also in high demand any computer, no matter how old. Over the ensuing weeks, the three began to form a plan: solicit donations for bikes and computers, ship them to Cameroon in a container, sell the contents and direct the proceeds toward primary school educational initiatives in Cameroon’s rural communities.
As a first step toward realizing their plan, Feazel and Nelson created the non-profit, DOORs Cameroon (Developing Opportunities for Orphans and Residents of Cameroon), and began advertising for donations of bicycles and computers. It was an effective strategy; donations poured in. They also needed cash. While they would pay for all their personal travel expenses out of their own pockets, they needed to cover the cost of shipping the container. If they exceeded that, they could apply it to their education fund. They got a big boost when a local librarian offered to pay a quarter of the shipping fees in return for including 2,500 books in the container.
The first phase of their plan went off without a hitch ’90 bicycles, 90 computers, some auxiliary technology, and the books were shipped in April and arrived in Douala, Cameroon’s only major port, in early June. However, when Feazel and Nelson arrived in Cameroon shortly thereafter, things began to go awry.
“We’d been warned about the corruption,” Feazel says, but neither one was prepared for what came next. The shipping container had been impounded and 33 signatures were required for its release. The ‘fees’ associated with getting all 33 signatures would total several thousand dollars, more than the cost of shipping the container from the U.S.
Frustrated and upset, they left Douala and headed inland to meet Wingo’s family. It helped to leave the city, and it wasn’t long before their adventure began to look up. Wingo’s family gave them a warm welcome and set them up in clean and simple accommodations. “We pretty much spent two months learning the culture,” says Nelson. They explored the surrounding area; visited farmers, herdsmen, and tribal and community leaders; and took a trip up into the mountains to visit an active volcano. They also had time to reflect on what they were trying to accomplish.
In the end, this had a major impact. “It really changed our mission as a charity,” says Feazel. After learning that to sponsor primary school students, they would need to work through an intermediary, incurring substantial administrative fees, they were less inclined to pursue that path. At the same time, they met six bright, motivated teenagers eager to attend college but lacking the means to do so. After consideration, Nelson and Feazel decided they wanted DOORS Cameroon to support them. Of the six, two are from Nso people, and four are from the traditionally-nomadic Fulani, many of whom have now transitioned into settled communities.
It is also logistically far more manageable, they can wire the funds directly to the students and avoid the rampant corruption they have so far encountered at every turn. Nelson and Feazel are particularly excited about the opportunity to sponsor women, who rarely have the opportunity to go to college in Cameroon.
When Feazel and Nelson left Cameroon in early August, the container still hadn’t been released by the port authorities. When it was, it was found that several computers and hard drives had been stolen, but otherwise the contents were intact. Since then, the remaining computers have been sold by a Cameroonian charity, the books were donated to an English library (apparently doubling its collection), and the bicycles are being sold by Wingo’s brother, the most trustworthy of their contacts in Cameroon, where family loyalty is sacrosanct.
Despite some setbacks, Feazel and Nelson are proud and happy with what they’ve accomplished. DOORs Cameroon is in the black by several thousand dollars, and they’re looking forward to pursuing their new mission, their first scholarship recipient will begin college in January, 2011.
“It was a learning experience,” admits Feazel, but equipped with a much better understanding of the country, and motivated by an affection and empathy for the people and communities with whom they came into contact, they say they are more confident and eager than ever to continue their work in the country. –Emmett Wald
See more photos of Leah Feazel and Andy Nelsons journey to Cameroon in Web Extras. If youd like to support their organization, donations can be made at doorscameroon.webs.com.