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Risking it at all cost for Healthcare: An Unusual Expedition to Ndu

By Akem Olives Nkwain with contribution from Bonkung Handerson

When my Editor-In-Chief scheduled me (Olives) to go with him to Banso Baptist Hospital for newsgathering, the thought of it hit me like a boomerang. I almost refused because I have not been to Banso for about three years due to the socio-political crisis, which quickly turned into a full-blown armed conflict. The stories on that stretch of road like on other roads in the Northwest and Southwest regions are horrible; gun battles, road blocks and sky-rocking price hikes in the transport fair. The thought of having such an experience in my profession encouraged me to go anyway. “If people are traveling that road and living in Banso, why not me?” Little did I know that our trip would go beyond Banso!

Although I traveled in a system vehicle with many other senior staff, the journey was still frightful. The scenario changed as soon as we climbed above Bambili towards Sabga. The road went dead: the grass had overgrown and almost covering the road, bullet wounds could be seen on every house near the road and all the mini markets along the road had been deserted and grass growing over them. No signs of people living in those houses although I was told that the situation was getting better with some people gradually returning to their homes. This atmosphere continued all through our safe arrival in Banso.

After our work in BBH for two days, a further plan into ‘Ground Zero’ was hatched. We had to continue to Ndu where the Project technicians had to set out the plan towards the launching of a theatre and surgical block for Ndu Baptist Health Center the following day. Critical patients, especially pregnant women referred to BBH had died because the road from Banso to Ndu had remained blocked for the past four years. Only motorbikes are plying the bumpy road, which is offensive and very costly to these critical patients. These bikers and their passengers go through scrupulous controls from both the military and the separatist fighters. Both belligerent camps need ‘settlement’ from the poor road users.

It’s January 11, 2021. The sun is yet to shine forth. The weather is freezing cold in Bui Division and we’re at Banso Baptist Hospital. A team of five brazing up for the trip to Ndu Baptist Health Centre in the heart of the “Anglophone Crisis” where movements to such places is likened to a journey of no return.

One of the team members, Chiambah Abraham Bujof, General Supervisor of Technical Services Department (TSD) asked another teammate, “Are you heading to Ndu?” Yes, my Editor-In-Chief responded. “See you when we get there,” Mr. Chiambah giggled to the amusement of the team.

His question by implication was just a gentle reminder of the uncertainty that looms along the Banso-Ndu stretch of road. Plying on this road, which has had the circulation of cars prohibited for four years and counting by Separatist Militia (Amba boys), is not an easy ride, to say the least!

We boarded our motorbikes and the infamous journey had begun! Less than 100 meters, we were halted at the first checkpoint made up of eight amba boys, armed to teeth. “Take off your mask we are told”. As one of our team members tried to make out a case for us, telling them we are protecting dust, one of them latched out with a practiced look, “I said take off the mask,” he retorted. “When there were no masks people moved without them,” he added while caressing the trigger of his gun.

The wearing of mask is mandatory as one of the measures spelled out by Cameroon’s government to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. Despite many COVID-19 cases recorded even in the fief of the amba boys, all they care for is that the wearing of a mask is in respect of a government they’re against. As such, whether the mask can prevent the spread of diseases is not their concern.

Biking along the hilly, stony and dusty road was fun. But, a quick look at the relics of houses razed down by whosoever in the name of war, drives your fun to pity and tears. A thought of raging gun battles that have claimed lives here further chokes your pity and brings fear to the heart anew.

After 20 minutes of riding, a signpost reads, “Welcome to Donga and Mantung Division”. Getting this far is not easy. The cold, teary eyes and all dusty faces, is the best description of everyone in our team. The earth had emptied enough dust on us as we rode along.

By the time we got to Ndu Baptist Health Centre we had gone past 14 checkpoints. At each point, our bikers paid money to those that manned these controls. This is what has brought the hike in fares from FCFA 1500 as of 2016, to now ranging between FCFA 1000-15000.

Touching base at Ndu Baptist Health Centre was enlivening to us. Immediately after dusting off the dust, we got to work. As diverse as our team was, the cream of technicians began the setting out of the site for the theatre project, while the Communication team went about their newsgathering task.

The theatre project is aimed at meeting the surgical needs of people in Ndu and its environs. Many critical cases that needed referral out of Ndu had to go through thick and thin getting to Banso, with many dying on the way. Imagine a pregnant woman in need of a cesarean section being transported on a bike on a stony, dusty, and hilly road.

Amidst the biting morning cold, we are set for the groundbreaking ceremony of the theatre project. In all camaraderie, Rev. Nyumnloh Peter, former General Secretary of the Cameroon Baptist Convention (CBC), and a host of other leaders led the groundbreaking, declaring construction works started.

2:00 pm is the time we said goodbye to Ndu Baptist Health Centre on January 13, 2021. Task accomplished! Lip-smacking meals served during our stay there was what we were grateful for. At least keeping body and soul together in such trips is necessary.

Our ride back to Banso promised to be fun. At least we had braved it to Ndu without major hitches. Little did we know, what has become the ‘Mah Encounter’ was just a wink away.  Mah is one of the quarters in Tatum along the Banso-Ndu road. At Mah, we were intercepted by a squadron of amba boys.

They conducted a thorough search of our travelers’ bags right down to undergarments, ransacking laptops, and toolboxes. It was not a friendly encounter. The thought of being kidnapped or gunned down if the regular forces suddenly showed up filled every one of our minds. This is what people are subjected to, plying this road. After the search and interrogations, they let us continue our trip to Banso and subsequently back to base in Bamenda.

That’s risking it at all cost to keep healthcare alive even in crisis plagued zones.