To begin, a word of introduction. My name is Drew Fink. I recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin and I am participating in a ten-week medical internship program in Njinikom, Cameroon. I will be working/ assisting/shadowing/living at a hospital called St. Martin de Porres, run by a group of nuns called the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis. Medicines for Humanity (MFH) has been partnering with them for some time, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to work with, and learn from the people here in Njinikom.
Packed and eager, I left Wisconsin just past noon on Monday October 14, on my way to O’Hare International. Air France Flight 0667 left Chicago for Paris at 5pm with me in tow. Touchdown in Paris went smoothly and after a quick five hours I was aboard another plane bound for Cameroon’s capital city of Yaounde. Although we were due to land at 7pm, it wasn’t until 8pm that we hit the tarmac in Cameroon and I, along with the rest of the passengers, erupted in relief induced cheers.
There was cause for celebration because we had spent the previous hour circling the airport in heavy turbulence, making several aborted attempts to land. It was nerve racking. Hearing the pilot’s voice come on the intercom explaining why he had just bailed out on the landing once again, and me, unable to understand French, having to judge the prognosis based on facial expressions of fellow passengers. There were more than a few prayers being said. Thankfully they were answered and there I was, in Cameroon. After clearing customs I met up with MFH program director Kenneth Muko. I spent the night at his house enjoying a much-needed shower and a hot plate of food.
The next day, we drove out of Yaounde and then nine hours to Njinikom. A note on Yaounde: loud, busy, chaotic. Old diesel compact cars loaded eight people heavy. Traffic suggestions – – not traffic laws. Many employees in stores presumably to deter shoplifting.
Much of the road was riddled with potholes and craters, the vast majority of cars, rusty and dented, likely predate me, and many of the haphazard buildings don’t exactly appear to be up to code. Nonetheless the scenery is gorgeous. Banana trees abound, roadside vegetable stands display cassava, plums and papaya, giant fig trees tower over the road, and in the distance framing it all are the mountains. We stopped for lunch at a crossroads. We had some meat on a stick, a coke, and grilled plums. An action I would pay for later with sub-par bowel movements. The food was very tasty though. Spicy too. Furthermore, while driving, I saw two men in Green Bay Packers jerseys, one of which waved to me. I take this as a good sign.
As we got closer to Njinikom, the incline grew steeper and the sky darker. It began to rain and soon we were in the mountains, switchbacking up and down and around. In a blur I got the first few letters of a welcome sign. “Njini”-something.
In the headlights I saw something out of place. A street sign. The first of its kind as far as I had noticed. It read Peter Tuin road. The bumpy, sometimes dirt, sometimes washed out road gave way to a smooth road made of neatly laid pavers flanked by a sturdy fence with a gate at the end beyond which were the grounds of St. Martin de Porres Hospital.
It was dark and rainy but the nuns, 25 of them, led by Sister Xaveria turned out to greet us with a song and hugs and hot food and even a little beer. Despite the darkness, I could appreciate that this place was different from what I had seen in passing the previous 9 hours.
It felt like an oasis. A place of order in a land of mud floors, crooked walls, and nonexistent traffic regulations. A place where something good had taken root.
In the morning Kenneth and Sister Xaveria gave me a tour of the hospital and made all the appropriate introductions. Elevated high above the valley floor in the mountainous northwest region of Cameroon, the hospital grounds are beautiful. Carefully tended flower beds spell out words of welcome and religious themed phrases, such as “We Treat, God Heals.” The various wards exist as separate buildings, mostly one story, and are connected by covered pathways. The land is pitched slightly downward towards the valley. Centrally located is a small chapel. The nuns’ residence occupies the land farthest down the hill, just past the orphanage. The place is its own little world, nearly self sufficient with a pasture for cows, a small farm, and pig pens.
Orchestrating this anomaly of efficiency are the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis, led by Sister Xaveria. Their bleached white habits, along with the medical staff’s white uniforms further contribute to the cleanliness and order that gives this place its luster.