When Things Fall Apart

Note the Child Hiding from Me Behind the Chair...
Nothing ever goes as planned here in the East. I should really know this by now, but I guess deep down I keep hoping that this region/my village will surprise me. It does surprise me, but normally not in the way I want…normally it surprises me by being more of a wreck than I anticipated it would. While my main project/work is beekeeping and soy cultivation, once a month I do a health talk at the Adjela Baka encampment outside of Lomié. As I’ve mentioned before, Adjela is quite literally and figuratively a shit show (no literally, there is poop here and there about the encampment). The encampment is large with around 200 people, but it is the poorest, most malnourished encampment in the area and despite being right outside Lomié, the population is also highly uneducated.

I did my first health talk in Adjela this month, and I asked the encampment what they wanted me to discuss – they suggested malaria. So I went home, spent a week making really poorly drawn images of the transmission cycle of malaria and various prevention methods and thought up some educational games to play. I got really pumped up about giving my first causerie and told myself it was going to be a success (I’m trying to think positively!). Sadly, it wasn’t so much a success.

I arrived at the encampment on time at 17:00h after everyone was back from their fields. They knew I was coming, but yet nothing was set up and nobody was there. That's OK! This is typical for Cameroon. My counterpart Yacouba began walking door to door and pulling people from their houses to come to the little shelter where the talk was going to be. As people showed up, I noticed that the majority of attendants were under the age of 10…which wasn’t exactly my target audience. Oh well, I thought, it’ll be fine! I hung up my poster, got out the candy to encourage participation, and began. The first thing we did was play a game…or at least, it was supposed to be a game. The idea of the game was to get everyone to stand in a line and I would ask questions like ‘Who has heard of malaria?’ and ‘How is malaria spread?' If people knew the answers, they were supposed to take one step forward from the line. These basic education questions were meant to demonstrate that most people have heard of or know something about malaria. Then I would progress to questions such as ‘Who knows someone in the encampment who has had malaria at some point?’, ‘Who has had a family member with malaria?’, and ‘Who has had malaria themselves?’. These more personal questions were meant to illustrate that malaria is a problem for these people. If these questions applied to someone, they were supposed to take yet another step forward. Finally, I’d end with asking questions such as ‘What are methods of prevention?’ and ‘How is malaria treated?’ to show that most people knew something about how to prevent malaria. At the end of the game, it is hoped that almost everyone has at least taken one step forward in order to demonstrate that everyone knows something about malaria.

The Game Gone Wrong
Unfortunately, this game didn’t go as planned. The adults refused to get out of their chairs and the children got in multiple lines, despite my urging them to stand in one single horizontal line. I began asking questions and having them translated from French to Baka and Nzimé, but nobody was moving. ‘Who has heard of malaria?!’, I repeated for the 4th time as everyone stared at me. I glanced at Carlos who was translating for me to see if anything was getting lost in translation, but it didn’t seem so. ‘Oh great,’ I thought, ‘This is not showing that people know things, but rather that they know nothing!’. In desperation I tried to explain that they don’t need to answer the question, but merely know the answer in their head. Still, nobody stepped forward. I moved on. ‘Who knows how malaria is transmitted?’. Again, no movement. I asked 3 more times and nothing changed. ‘Who knows someone in the encampment who has had malaria?’, I continued. Again, no movement. I asked the question a second, third, and fourth time. Getting exasperated, I pleaded, ‘Okay guys, you have to know someone that has had malaria!’. No movement. ‘Who has had a family member with malaria?’, I moved on again. No movement. At this point, Yacouba steps in and begins dragging certain kids forward and mumbling ‘Your sister had malaria…your mom had malaria…you had malaria two weeks ago!’. After dragging a handful of kids out of line, Yacouba told me to give them candy. The candy was not meant for the game, but rather to entice people to answer questions in the discussion that we would have later. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘Now I’m giving candy out to kids who have had malaria cases in their family as if I’m rewarding them for contracting malaria!’. The game continued like this until I finished. Kids were pulled forward by Yacouba, they were rewarded for no reason with candy, and then shoved back in line. While the game was meant to demonstrate that people know about malaria, it in fact showed quite the opposite.

I chalked the game up as a loss and tried to move on. I pulled out my poster of the cycle of transmission and asked if anyone could explain how malaria is spread. Silence. “Whoever answers gets candy!”, I desperately pleaded. After a minute, one woman slowly raised her hand. She pointed to my poster and began going to explain the transmission cycle. Here’s how the explanation went:
What's So Hard to Understand?!
  • The woman explaining: “So you see, there is a biting fly by water, and there are probably some wild mangoes around…”
  • I thought: ‘Wait what?’, but I decided to just let her continue and I’d correct her when she finished.
  • The woman continued: “The biting fly gets malaria from the mangoes and then he bites a man’s knee…”
  • I thought: ‘That’s supposed to be an elbow, but whatever.’
  • The woman continued: “Because this man had a spell cast on him from sorcery because of his bad deeds, he catches malaria from the mosquito…”

At this point, I did another double take at my poster, wondering what the hell on there that I drew led this woman to interpret my drawings this way and give this explanation. Nothing, nothing in my images explained what this lady was pulling out of her butt.

I thanked her, gave her candy (at least she tried…), and then attempted to correctly explain the cycle of malaria. No, biting flies don’t give you malaria. No, manges sauvages don’t give you malaria. No, sorcery doesn’t give you malaria.

I went on to explain how to prevent malaria and flipped my poster over to reveal prevention images, which again were all misinterpreted. I went into detail about the alternative modes of prevention and how one treats malaria. My explanations were long, but the phrases that the translator were saying were very short, which led me to believe that he was ignoring more than half of what I was saying. I stressed that children under five and pregnant women get free treatment of malaria and that pregnant women get free prophylaxis to prevent malaria. I stated this no less than 7 times in various ways in order to make my point. But as I would later find out, my breath was wasted.

"Children and Pregnant Women are Free! FREE, Gosh Dangit!" 

Cue: the drunken men. Oh, Lomié and your alcoholics and endless forms of homemade alcoholic concoctions! Some non-Baka men who live near the camp came stumbling up. I could see them coming from a distance, but I was crossing my fingers they would pass without any problems. Wrong. The 2 smelly drunk non-Bakas came right up to where I was presenting, tripped and fell into me, and asked what I was doing – all the while showering me with eau de ethanol a scent to which I am not very partial. I tried to keep calm and get the men to back away and take a seat, but they continued to derange. Then one went up to ask questions about the pictures on my poster, but ended up falling into it and tearing part of it down. He then backed away, began yelling in Nzimé, and began stealing the chairs out from under people for what seemed like no particular reason. The man stacked the chairs, sat on top of all of them, and the Bakas all moved to the ground. The other man was endlessly yelling about how I was lying and that mangoes do indeed transmit malaria (because why else would he have malaria? He just ate some mangoes!). Then the two men caught sight of the bag of candy, which I had hoped to save the remains of for the next health talk. They ran over, grabbed the bag, grabbed some handfuls for themselves, and then threw the leftover candy to the audience. At this point, all hell had broken lose. The drunken men were stumbling about and arguing with everyone, the children were all starting to lose attention and grasp the candy that fell to the ground, and the few adults were trying to do damage control and collect candy themselves. In desperation I looked to Yacouba for help, but he was busy talking on the phone. I then shouted and asked if there were any final questions before I ended.

  • Drunk man #1 raised his hand: “Oui, quelle?” - “Yes, which?”
  • Me: “Which what? I’m asking if people have questions on malaria.”
  • Drunk man #1: “Yes, my question is ‘which?’”
  • Me: “You need to be more specific. Which what?”
  • Drunk man #1: “Which…what…who?”
  • Me: “Okay then...moving on. I want to ask all of you two last review questions and then you can go home. The first question: What causes malaria?”
  • A woman raises her hand: “No biting flies, but biting ants, mangoes and mosquitoes”
  • Me: “NO, only mosquitoes! Guys we talked about this! Second question: how much does it cost for pregnant women and children to get malaria treatment?”
  • The group debates for a few minutes in Nzimé and Baka and collectively replied: “Around 5,000cfa”.
  • Me: “No, its free!
  • The group: “But what about the medication and consult fees?”
  • Me: “There are none for pregnant women and children under five. If you go to the clinic right there…,” I point to the CSI across the way, “it is all free! So, again, how much does it cost for pregnant women and children under 5 to get malaria treatment?”
  • The group: “Not 5,000cfa, but 4,000cfa”
I wanted to bang my head against the wooden post at this point. I told them all that we’d work on this all next time I came. As the perfect ending to the who fiasco, the drunk man #2 came back up to me while I was packing up my things and asked me if I was married as he gently stroked my arm.

Surprisingly after this whole discouraging debacle, I didn’t want to cry. Yes, I felt defeated, but I wasn’t angry or too upset. At this point, I’ve gotten use to things going awry. Mainly, I just wanted one of my friends there so I would have someone to laugh with at the absurdity of it all. Instead, I had Yacouba, who on the walk home said to me, “Well, I think that was successful! I think that went really well!”. If that is what well by Lomié standards is, I hope that none of my talks go badly!


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