Anna Maria Johanna Margaretha Kok or “Ans,” is a beautiful and amazing Dutch woman (and career physical therapist until the mid 1990’s) who, at 53, when her husband (my husband’s uncle) was taking early retirement and she could easily have settled into a life of leisure, instead took on a major, at times overwhelming new project that consumed her for the next 7 years and made a profound difference for a village in Cameroon, Africa.
Here is her amazing story, which shows how much individual people, working together with other individual people, can do!
Bitoutouck, Cameroon is a small village in the jungle of Cameroon, with about 800 inhabitants. It is located around 60 miles from the capital of Yaounde. To get there, you can take the train, when it’s running, but then you still have to walk an hour into the jungle. The total trip takes 3 hours from Yaounde, and, no matter which way you travel to get there, you have to cross the River Nyong, a river infested with crocodiles and therefore not easily crossed in a canoe!
When Ans Heykoop and her friend Marthe went to Bitoutouck in 1999, to visit Marthe’s home village and her family, Ans was distressed to see that there was no bridge across the river—and not because it made the journey difficult for her. What she saw was that the lack of a bridge meant there was no easy way for the villagers to get their goods to market in the city or find jobs for themselves. The effect on the people of the village was obvious. Most people in the village had no income and had difficulty providing their children with even one meal a day. The village had no clean drinking water, so children had to walk hundreds of yards to get water out of a stream before going to school in the morning, and, since the water was used for everything, many people had intestinal illnesses. A trip to the doctor in Libamba, however, a village on the other side of the river, meant walking 16 miles! The school building had 3 classrooms, with 140 students spread over 4 classes, one of which was held in a small building meant to house a teacher. There were large holes in the schoolroom walls; the floor was stamped earth, and the children were plagued with sand fleas between their toes.
That trip, coupled with a love of Africa that had started for Ans as a young girl when she spent time visiting her missionary uncle in The Congo, inspired her to ask her friends and family to donate money to help the village build its first clean water well. This project soon led to others, and, the next thing you know, she and Marthe had started an official foundation to continue aid to Bitoutouck.
Called the “Bridge to Bitoutouck Foundation,” the organization had as its long-term goal to some day build a bridge across the river Nyong to Bitoutouck, but, in the meantime, there were short-term, more immediate projects. For the next seven years, Ans served as the first chairperson of the foundation’s steering committee, working closely with Marthe to make sure that the projects undertaken by the foundation were ones that the villagers actually needed, ones that could make a significant difference.
And, boy, did they make a difference! Just look at the list of projects:
In 2001, the first drinking water well was dug.
In 2002, the school was fully renovated with doors, ceilings, a cement floor, whitewash, and, perhaps most importantly, outhouse toilets.
In 2003, a new schoolroom was built, as well as a small house for the school director. A small grain milling machine was acquired for the village. A boy with polio was aided with an operation; a man received a new hip and could walk again, and a deaf girl in the village was helped by a foundation gift to enter a boarding school.
In 2004, a medical clinic was constructed. Ten new palm oil plantations were started, which, 3 years later, were ready to provide palm oil to sell.
Over the next few years, a motorized press was provided for pressing oil from the palm nuts. A used Toyota was donated to the village for getting goods to market. A small community building was constructed as a meeting place, with a small kitchen for providing two meals per week to the schoolchildren. And a second well was built in a nearby village.
Most recently, more wells have been constructed, and the medical clinic now has a gravity-fed water tank, filled by pumping water from the first well.
For more information about any or all of these projects, go to www.brugnaarbitoutouck.nl. However, I warn you: the site is in Dutch!
After seven years of almost daily work for the foundation, Ans has now stepped down.
The point I want to make about this amazing woman is 1) she didn’t have official training in “foundation development” or “non-profit management” 2) she had no outside sources of funds at first, although, over the years, she has attracted other foundations, other funders to the work of the foundation; all she had was a compelling need to help the people of Marthe’s village—that and a huge amount of intelligence, persistence, and courage 3) she did all this amazing work while also continuing her own volunteer work in Soest (for 25 years, for example, Ans swam every Saturday morning with handicapped people, helping them to be more physically active) AND taking courses in or teaching herself sculpture. To quote her husband of 28 years, Jan Heykoop: “(The foundation work) was in addition to taking care of many folks in need and jumping in to help handicapped friends and patients find their way through the maze of Dutch medical care. Then there was the dog, and (myself), and not to forget that she has become quite a good sculptor in the past ten years or so.”
Once again Ans Heykoop, we at Oops50 salute you: a truly amazing, beautiful woman over 50!
To make a donation to the Bridge to Bitoutouck Foundation, go to http://www.brugnaarbitoutouck.nl and click on “How Can I Help?”