Cameroon Trip Challenges First-Year Students' Thoughts About Africa





The words listed above are some of the typical responses Americans give when asked to reveal the first thing that comes to mind about Africa.

A small group of first-year Albion College students spent their first semester on campus last fall in a first-year seminar course designed to acquaint the young scholars with another side of Africa they may have never considered.

The Albion College delegation stands in front of a school built in 2007 with funds from the Nwagni Club.
The Albion College delegation stands in front of a school built in 2007 with funds from the Nwagni Project.

Emmanuel Yewah, professor of French and the Howard L. McGregor Endowed Professor of Humanities at Albion, led the class titled "Africa: Myth and Reality." According to Yewah's course description, the class aimed to introduce the Albion students to who Africans are and what they do, feel, and hope for. The course culminated with a field trip to Cameroon, situated in the west-central area of the continent, during the first two weeks of January when most Albion students were on break between semesters.

Melissa Woodard, Kim Hagel, and Alyssa Heilman with a girl they met at one of the schools the Albion group visited.
Melissa Woodard, Kim Hagel, and Alyssa Heilman with a girl they met at one of the schools the Albion group visited.

Kayla Gustitus admitted animals and poverty were among her original conceptions about Africa.

"We went and lived the reality when we went to Africa," Gustitus, a Hartland native who is considering a major in psychological sciences, said. "I did not see a single animal there, everyone looked healthy and there were houses there.

The Albion group visited the chief of a village
The Albion group visited the chief of a village.

"I had never seen a black sand beach before and it was really sweet," she added. "We climbed onto [a horizontal rock formation] and we could see everything -- the villages, trees, and a little river that trickled down the mountain."

What Gustitus found was that the children in Cameroon are not much different than here in the United States. Despite a language barrier that made one-on-one conversations difficult, the kids started to play a pick-up game as soon as a ball came on the scene and everyone hammed it up for a camera.

"They got excited when we brought a soccer ball and they loved being in pictures," she said. "They would form a group around the camera and then they would want to see the picture."

A sign welcomes visitors to the village of Batchingou
A sign welcomes visitors to the village of Batchingou.

In addition to the insights gained in class meetings, Gustitus received packing tips from the niece of her high school volleyball coach, who had previously traveled to Africa. All of that information still didn't fully prepare Gustitus for power outages and the need to fill buckets of water for bathing.

"I've learned to be more thankful about everything we have here," she said. "The toilet in the hotel room didn't have running water and the air conditioner didn't work. It was an adjustment, but it wasn't hard. We lived with what we had and we accepted it."

Putting Things in Perspective
Alyssa Heilman was not placed into the first-year experience seminar taught by Yewah; she had her interest in abnormal psychology and television shows like Law & Order and Criminal Minds filled instead by the "Sources of Power" class taught by Paul Hagner, the husband of Albion President Donna Randall.

Heilman approached the Nwagni Project table at Briton Bash, a student organization fair held early in the fall semester. The Nwagni Project, formed during the 2005-06 academic year after Yewah led the first delegation of Albion students to Cameroon, raises money for projects ranging from a new school building in a rural village to a water purification system. Yewah contacted Heilman about the field trip based on her interest in the Nwagni Project.

"I have always loved Africa -- the music, the culture, the art, the people," Heilman, a native of Ionia, said.

Heilman reflected on the perspective she gained from the field trip as the scenes she witnessed in Cameroon stand in contrast to the materialistic society in America.

"We did a lot of driving around [the country] and found they don't have public trash cans, so a lot of refuse goes on the ground and most of the houses in the village of Batchingou, where Dr. Yewah was born, are made out of mud brick," Heilman said. "While many of the houses were constructed with concrete in the other cities we visited, it's still nothing like what you would see here.

"Materials are not as important to them," she added. "When a group of people gets together here they may watch a movie or TV. If you get together there you'll be talking and interacting."

Although she says she is fortunate to live in America, Heilman added that the people she met in Cameroon report they are happy and enjoy their family relationships.

Gustitus and Heilman indicated they will support Nwagani Project endeavors, with Heilman adding that she is interested in serving as a mentor for Yewah's first-year experience class and returning to Cameroon.