It was the morning of our second full day in Njinikom, Cameroon on a short term mission with Mission Doctors Association. My wife, Heather and I had slept poorly that night. The rooster started to crow at 1:15 A.M., 4:15 AM and 5:15 AM. Six AM mass at the convent of the Tertiary Sisters of Saint Francis begun before dawn with a chorus of birdsong which swelled with the coming sunshine in the east and then faded. Two dozen veiled nuns lifted their angelic voices in prayer to God without the drums that the Lenten season proscribed. The homily was that persecution is a sign of faith. The Eucharist gave us strength for the day and allowed us to “abide in Him”. As I walked back to the duplex for morning Via, fruit, peanut butter and bread, it was still quiet. Families of patients were stirring, carrying wood on their heads to the community kitchen and the smell of burning fires and dust clutched at my larynx. The rains were late this year. Ward rounds at St Martin de Porres’ Catholic Hospital started with Dr. Jim Hake, the three year volunteer family practitioner, at 730 AM. There was a new patient with endometritis due a criminal abortion. The patient with hepatitis, coagulopathy, HIV, and recurrent seizures, either due to Cryptococcus meningitis or tuberculosis, was bleeding from every orifice. The family wanted to take her home to die at home when told that there was nothing more we could do for her. A 33 year old man by the name of David with HIV, was spiking temperatures to 40’ C, had negative AFB smears, marked cardiomegally and on ECHO probable tuberculosis pericarditis. He would be started on TB medications. The outpatient department was full when we walked in from the wards. I saw my first patient, Aloysius, with Kaposi’s Sarcoma which put him in WHO clinical stage 4, for HIV. Aloysius had defaulted on his HIV medications for unknown reasons. Later in the morning we admitted a 9 month old girl to the ward with malaria. Children suffer the most from this disease because of their lack of immunity.
After a year of planning and waiting we were finally able to realize our dream of serving in Njinikom with the Franciscan Sisters at the hospital named for a Dominican saint, St. Martin de Porres. This was particularly meaningful to me since I am a professed Lay Dominican. Although my most recent specialization is in PM&R, my training in family medicine was more utilized during my month of service. Dr. Hake was a good teacher and I was fortunate to be able to work with Germer Bihlum, a medical nurse who speaks English, Pidgin English and French. Her clinical instincts were very good. Heather was privileged to be able to work with Sister Natalia in the orphanage for children who had lost parents to HIV or perinatal mortality. The children are needy and yet so loveable.
The spring rains finally came with thunder and lightning. The weaver birds chattered after each torrential outburst and then attacked the hillside gardens for bugs or worms after the earth was softened up by the water. The hills around Njinikom are verdant with bananas, beans, corn, coffee and large green mangoes and papayas.
Heather and I loved the Cameroonian custom of saying “You are welcome!” after each introduction. We were told by a Cameroonian priest, Fr. Eugen that the locals give preferential treatment to the stranger in their midst, like Jesus told us to do in Matthew 25. We loved working with the Franciscan Sisters because of their joy, sense of fun and love. They are real models for women in this part of the world where women are often second class citizens. The matron of the hospital, Sister Xaveria, has brought hope to patients with HIV through pre and post test counseling for the disease, educational programs that encourage men, women and children to be tested and get treated if positive for HIV. She has also encouraged local women to band together in microfinance projects and to come together on annual women’s day. We also had the privilege of meeting Dominican Sisters and their abbess, Sister Raymondo, in Bambui. They run a retreat center and live a contemplative life of prayer and worship. The Lay Dominicans of Bamenda, led by Felix Foko Fovop, the formation director for all of Africa, drove out to Njinikom to meet me and invited me to visit their Lay Dominican Center on our way out of Cameroon. He was a real inspiration as he told me of the apostolate of his chapter of St. Catherine of Siena which does a weekly hour of catchesis in the schools for Catholic students.
During our 3rd week of stay in Cameroon we took a trip to Bafut to St. Joseph Child and Adult Home, a rehabilitation hospital, also run by the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis. Sister Prisca, a physical therapist, proudly showed us around her domain where we saw Cameroonian and Belgium PTs treating patients with strokes, brachial plexus injuries, cerebral palsy, amputations and paraplegia due to trauma and Pott’s disease. We were also introduced to teachers and students for the blind who were being taught to read Braille books. We saw the workshop for orthotics, shoes and prostheses. We walked past children walking in the parallel bars or outside of them with their new braces. There were a handful of patients who were still in casts after having osteotomies for leg straightening and were patiently waiting for the 10 weeks required before getting braces and beginning their PT to learn to walk again. Miracles were happening in the present and expectantly all around us. The face of Jesus was here in the patients, their mothers, the therapists, prosthetists and the Sisters.
Our month of service came and went too quickly. It was our luck to be there for the beginning of the jubilee celebration of St. Martin de Porres Catholic Hospital. The Seraphic Singers lead the responses at the mass in the hospital courtyard, while the Atuilah singers and dancers welcomed the guests and then encouraged major donations by the community. A prayer to St. Martin de Porres from the 50 th Anniversary of Njinikom Booklet is a good way end to this essay and will continue to challenge me. God sent us home safely from Njinikom, Cameroon with our own health intact and hearts full of joy for being able to serve Him and the sick people of the community in the presence of so much love from the body of Christ here in Africa.
“Dear St. Martin, teach us to be generous with the gifts that God has given us. Make us sympathetic towards those who are suffering and afflicted. Pray to Our Redeemer and to Our Lady of Mercy that our hearts may not be hardened by sin and selfishness, but that we may always be kind and generous to our neighbors because they are the children of Our Heavenly Father. Amen.” By Rev., Fr. Anthony Ndang Ndichia, MHM