African trip was harrowing

A scary incident abroad has not deterred a Granville graduate from wanting to return to Africa in the future.

Cornell senior Kate McDermott is returning to school with what could be the most exciting “what I did on my summer vacation” story ever after being robbed at machete point while doing work in Cameroon as part of her undergraduate work toward becoming a doctor.

As a biology major, McDermott said, she had signed on to take part in a new interdisciplinary minor. 

“A lot of pre-med students minor in one called global health, which is about the health concerns and issues facing the world particularly those of third world or developing nations,” McDermott said.

After taking classes as a portion of the minor, what remained was to spend eight weeks overseas in an underdeveloped country doing health work.

McDermott spent her summer working for a non-governmental organization; she left June 29 and returned Aug. 24, just a few days before classes began. It was not what she expected.

“I worked with two others, one from Germany and one from Japan. We did a lot of HIV/AIDs education,” she said. The work was satisfying, she said, but the organization lacked structure.

“They were really spreading themselves too thin trying to solve problems in too many areas other than the environment and they weren’t doing anything with water; it seemed like they were trying to do everything else,” she said.

“They were dabbling in all of these fields because they didn’t really have any money to do anything,” she said.

“We had to define our own role within the NGO because it is so ridiculously unorganized in any working environment, it’s kind of like what you want to do,” she said.

“So we looked around and decided the local organization wasn’t really doing anything because they had no funding – we decided to try their hands at grant writing,” McDermott said. 

With her roommates, McDermott lived in a house in a neighborhood on the outskirts of a city, Boyea, which had been vacated by the NGO’s head, Bill Mosha.

Mosha was an actual prince whose father was a chief; it was the family’s money that kept the organization afloat, McDermott said.

“He never gave us a role; he taught us how to order food in a restaurant but never assigned anyone any tasks,” she said.

“It kind of baffles me how this kept going,” she said.

It was that choice to pursue grant writing that in a way put McDermott in harm’s way. The time difference was six hours – ahead. So McDermott said she had to stay up until the early morning hours to be able to call home and catch anyone at home.

McDermott’s mother, Laura, has grant-writing experience and she wanted to talk to her on the phone.

While waiting to call home one night, McDermott was doing laundry, by hand, outside in a bucket. “It was horrible,” she said.

Going to hang the laundry in a neighborhood with no power, it was pretty dark at 11 p.m., she said.

What happened next was unusual and served as a warning sign McDermott heeded just a bit too late.

“Three guys came walking down the road, sort of following a car. I got a weird feeling from those guys,” she said.

As one of about five white-skinned people in the whole city McDermott was used to being gawked at. The three didn’t look, not even peek in her direction.

“Everyone stared, everyone — there was no way someone would walk down the street and not look at the white girl’s house,” she said.

“These guys did the opposite; they were conspicuous in how hard they were trying not to look as they went by,” she said. She knew it was time to go inside, but figured she had time to put out the last few items.

When the three men came back by, two had machetes – they made a move for the house.

McDermott tried to block them when she realized they were going to go inside. The third man grabbed her and put his hand over her mouth in an attempt to get her to be quiet – she was not quiet. McDermott began to yell at the top of her lungs trying to wake her roommates and the neighbors. Despite being physically restrained by a man while two others with giant knives demanded cash, McDermott said she was not scared.

“I didn’t think that they were going to harm me because I could tell that they were terrified,” she said. “I only saw the face of the first one. … You could just see that they were very, very, very desperate so I wasn’t scared for my safety,” McDermott said.

The man holding her told her not to yell because he had a gun. “No you don’t,” McDermott said and kept shouting.

McDermott told the men they had no money so when they spotted some items lying around they grabbed them and fled into the night. The robbers got an old laptop computer, part of one roommate’s cash, a cell phone and a flashlight.

“I was really loud. I was like waking the neighbors up so they were scrambling around grabbing anything they could see so they could run,” she said.

Like a scene from a comedy movie McDermott described how the knife-wielding robber begins running with the laptop – a plugged-in laptop – and gets near the doorway before he runs out of power cord and gets yanked over backward, spilling into the door and wrecking it. 

Afterward, McDermott said, she had a couple of scratches on her face from the man’s fingernails, but otherwise was fine – but hopping mad. In the weeks following the robbery McDermott would get the short course in Third World police state law enforcement.

Cameroon is a police state and despite groups of uniformed men on the street corners with machine guns, “there is no 911,” she said.

“They’re kind of preoccupied (with keeping control),” she said. “They’re called the police and technically they have a police station – but it’s a joke. I went there to report it and it took me two weeks to report it and then ‘the boss was out ’ so after waiting in a waiting room three hours a day for two weeks, nothing happened.”

The experience was disappointing.

“I don’t know what would have happened if I’d tried to get immediate action, if I was like ‘they went that way, chase them’ they probably would have laughed at me,” she said.

“I missed a lot of work trying to report this, but I kind of had this mission.”

McDermott said people don’t trust institutions in the country. Contrary to what the people thought the bank never failed her. She got a fair exchange rate all the time. 

“I decided that it was time to give the police the responsibility and if enough people did, maybe something would happen,” she said.

“A lot of times I had to remind myself that this is a different world and I cannot get up in arms about this because this is such a huge problem. There are so many vicious cycles going on that you can’t find the root cause of all of the p

“You just can’t; it’s so complicated. I just had to remind myself and bite my tongue it was very hard to decide what to get upset about and what to keep my mouth shut about,” she said.

McDermott said she was surprised how she felt upon returning to the United States.

“I thought I’d be reverse culture shocking, but I’m not,” she said. McDermott said the trip taught her, if nothing else, that Africa’s problems are so complex and big that one person’s consumer habits don’t have any effect. 

“It was really good for me personally; it relieved some of the sense of responsibility. I now know that one person can contribute to helping but cannot solve the problems,” she said. 

McDermott said the experience overall was a good one and despite getting robbed she wanted to do volunteer work in Africa again sometime in the future.



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