Depistez-Vous! (HIV Campaign - Phase 2)

Sensitization in Wandjock
 The most exhausting part of my HIV testing campaign is (thank God), done. The month of April was exhausting, stressful and angering in every imaginable way. Every week involved at least one trip en brousse to a village to educate and test for HIV. The testing days involved waking up early, taking a bumpy cramped moto to wherever our destination was, and then spending the entire day asking the same questions over and over and then either telling people they were HIV negative, or, unfortunately far too often, telling them they were HIV positive. Factor in the daily instances of ‘Cameroonian-struggle-bus-instances (which I define as things that should be simple, but which aren’t because Cameroonians make everything more complicated than it really is);  it was physically exhausting but more so emotionally exhausting.

The opening of my campaign was in Ngatt and it involved a two day testing event at the hospital. I was significantly skeptical about whether anyone would show up, but thankfully about two hundred people did over the two days. Spencer came up from the Centre region and assisted me in educating people on methods of transmission, how to combat stigmatization, and how to properly use a condom. While the Ngatt testing date didn’t have as many people as I was hoping would show up, it was still not a bad turn out.

Waiting for Test Results in Wandjock
The next day Spencer and I went to Wandjock, a village alongside Lake Mbakaou. While Spencer and I both did the education sessions like in Ngatt, we were also in charge of registration and pre- and post-test counseling. Unfortunately, post-test counseling involves telling people their status, and given that my Fulfulde is stronger than Spencer’s, it was always me telling people their HIV status. The first batch of 40 or so people was all adults among which three were positive. Each time I had to tell someone they were HIV positive was worse than the previous time. After the third time, I wasn’t sure I could tell one more person their status. Thankfully, after the initial 40 or so people, there was a large bunch of kids who came to get tested who were all (thankfully) negative. While the mood was far from jubilant most of the day, the mood was lightened, if only a bit, by the children who would respond to my ‘What is your ethnic group?’ question with “Arab.” The first kid who told me he was Arab, I asked again, thinking I misheard. Nope, he legitimately thought he was Arab. Spencer and I stifled our laughs and I asked the kid ‘Oh okay, so are you Saudi or Qatari…?’ The joke was lost on the kid, but Spencer and I got a few good laughs at several kids’ expenses.

I traveled to 8 villages throughout the month of April and tested over 500 people, with 1,000 tests left over to give for voluntary testing at the Ngatt health center for those who want to be tested on their own time. Unfortunately, we found that the HIV prevalence rate for my area was about 10-12%, which far surpasses the national average of 5%. The next step in the campaign is convincing those who are HIV+ to show up for my new HIV+ support group, but that is proving to be far tougher than my  boss and I anticipated. This week I’m attending a Working with HIV+ People conference, so my counterpart and I are hoping that’ll inspire us.

While the testing campaign was emotionally exhausting, there were some positive stories that emerged. One day I was testing people in Mbizor, another fishing village alongside Lake Mbakaou. 20% of the people I tested that day were HIV+. Most people are quite stoic when they receive the news; for some they already knew, and for others they have a hard time accepting the fact they have HIV. One woman was shell-shocked, but asked very calmly what she needs to do. I told her the first thing is to tell her husband.
Waiting for Results in Wandjock

The next day in Ngatt she came to the health center with the husband, but didn’t tell him why they were there. I explained that we wanted to test both of them for HIV, and the husband agreed. When I pulled the woman aside and told her that her second test confirmed that she does in fact have HIV, tears welled up in her eyes and she explained to us that her husband told her he has another woman whom he will run away and marry if she has HIV. Given this information, I asked my boss what we should do, but he agreed that we need to tell the husband and explain to him the realities, with the wife’s permission, of course. She agreed, left the room, and we called the husband in. He was HIV negative and was obviously relieved, but was shocked his wife was positive.

We explained for 30 minutes the realities of HIV treatment and how to prevent him from contracting HIV. We counseled him on how he can still have kids (which he wants) and told him that he shouldn’t blame or leave his wife. He agreed, but I was skeptical. We called the wife back in and he consoled her. After another discussion with the two of them together, we let them leave. The husband left and the woman followed behind him, both of them not talking. As I watched them leave, I was dubious whether he was sincere in telling us that he would stay with his wife. As he walked several steps ahead of his wife, I was convinced that my boss and I were responsible for the breakup of a marriage. But later in the day, my boss and I saw the couple sitting roadside before returning to Mbizor – they were sitting close, holding hands (already unusual for Cameroon), sharing their lunch, and laughing. The scene itself was not normal for couples in Cameroon, who usually show no signs of affection towards their significant other, but given the news they were just given, I was filled with optimism that this couple, might indeed, last.

Fishing in Mbizor
The next stage of my campaign will be the continuation of giving out free tests at the Ngatt health center and getting that HIV support group started. This project will lead through the end of my service which is fast approaching (!!!!!!). My time left in Cameroon is now less than 6 months, and while the past year and a half seems like it’s dragged on, I feel like my last bit of time will speed by, or at least I’m hoping it will. While I’m sure when I board the plane for my COS trip it will be bittersweet, I feel at this point, I’ve fulfilled all I wanted to in Cameroon. 

Daily annoyances, security incidents, and struggles seem to compound on each other and build to the point that they can burn a volunteer out. I will admit that I am ready to move on and quite frankly at this point I can’t wait. I am looking forward to my life post Peace Corps but for now the adventure, and work, isn’t over quite yet.

1 comment:

  1. so proud to know you. great work. come home soon!


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