When 18 Heathwood students became pen pals with a group of students in Cameroon last year, their main goal was to strike up international friendships and learn more about what they and their pen pals had in common despite their geographic distance. But now one terrible difference between the lives of the Heathwood students and the Cameroonian ones is making their correspondence more meaningful than ever.
Long-simmering conflicts between the English- and French-speaking regions of Cameroon have recently erupted into open warfare, leaving the Cameroonian students’ situation increasingly perilous and making them feel more cut off from the outside world. In that context, says Heathwood yoga teacher Pam Meriwether, who helped the students launch the pen pals program, just hearing from friends outside their region and knowing people care about them can make a huge difference.
The pen pal program began in the fall of 2017, when, inspired by a summer reading book about a pair of pen pals in Pennsylvania and Zimbabwe, a group of Heathwood 7th graders decided they too would like to connect with peers in Africa. Mrs. Meriwether reached out to colleagues in the Himalayan Institute, a nonprofit she’s involved with that does humanitarian work in Cameroon. Through the institute, the Heathwood students were connected with 10 Cameroonian middle schoolers who study at the Himalayan Institute library in the village of Kumbo.
The students exchanged letters regularly throughout the year, sharing details of their lives, their families, their hobbies, and their dreams. In June, Mrs. Meriwether and her sons Fletcher, ’19, and Jackson, ’21, traveled to Cameroon and spent time in Kumbo. Connecting in person with people they’d gotten to know virtually through the institute was a wonderful experience, Mrs. Meriwether says, but it also underscored how difficult life had become in the region. “Across the board, people expressed gratitude that we were there because they feel forgotten,” she notes. “And being there really brought home how divided the country has become. There are checkpoints with armed guards every time you go to a different region.”
The Himalayan Institute has been a beacon of hope and opportunity in Kumbo, providing textbooks and access to computers for children who are hungry to learn, and helping with economic development as well. But as the conflict has escalated in recent months, the institute has been forced to close for days or weeks at a time, and daily life for the Cameroonian students is increasingly circumscribed by curfews and other restrictions.
That’s why hearing from their Heathwood pen pals means so much. Mrs. Meriwether’s contacts at the institute have been able to confirm that the Cameroonian students are all currently safe from harm. But their lives are undoubtedly more stressful and challenging than they were a year ago when the correspondence began.
With mail in the region no longer reliable, the Heathwood students recently emailed a new set of letters to their friends, care of the Himalayan Institute, which will print them out and deliver them to the Cameroonian students’ houses. Because their lives have been so disrupted by the conflict, the Cameroonians may not be able to write back soon. But at least they know they have friends in South Carolina who are thinking of them and praying for them, and the Heathwood students know they’re bringing comfort into the lives of friends they’ve come to care about very much.
Read more about the conflict in Cameroon and why it’s left people in English-speaking areas like Kumbo so isolated in this October 6 article from the New York Times.