6.22.2015

But What If We Don't Have Tomatoes?

Prepping Nutrition discussion Images
Long time, no talk! Yes, I’m still here chugging away in Cameroon. I’ve been wrapping up my projects, studying for the GRE, working on PhD applications, and trying to fit in a bit of time to relax - my hands have been full! But in case you were worried, no, I haven’t (yet) died of some mysterious illness, although it is not yet off the table. In all honesty, as my time is coming to an end here, there just isn't all that much (new) to talk about that I haven't already.

My HIV project is still underway - 600 of my 1,000 tests have been used, and the tests have confirmed what my counterpart and I suspected: that our HIV prevalence rate in our heavily migratory fishing population area of Cameroon is 10-12%, which is 4 times the national average. The majority of large testing days in my health district are finished, but at the end of July I’m assisting a new health volunteer in carrying out a 2-day testing campaign in his village - so hopefully by the end of July, 1,000 Adamawans will know they status and seek treatment!

As for “Phase 3” of my project - creating a support group for HIV+ people - well, that has been tried, and tried, and tried again with no success. The hard thing about Cameroon is (well, honestly, many things) the lack of will and the power of stigmatization. HIV is immensely stigmatized in and around Ngatt, especially among the Muslims. Many people have misconceptions about the origins of HIV, claiming that it’s a disease brought about by witchraft or eating too many mangoes. People are extremely worried about their status getting out in the community, which is understandable, but the fear inhibits them from even attending discrete meetings with other HIV positive community members. If people lack the trust in their fellow community members in keeping their status secret, then nobody shows up to the support group.

The other problem is lack of will. The origins of this project came from three women in my village who came to me one day, told me their status, and begged for a testing campaign and a support group with income generating activities. I followed through with my end of the bargain (I even bought seeds to create a large support group garden to improve nutrition), yet the three women didn’t uphold their end. Even when I told them I had seeds for a group garden and all they had to do was show up to my house, they still wouldn’t do it. There’s a point in Peace Corps work where you realize you can’t force people to change, and this was my moment. Whereas my testing campaign was a success, and hundreds (and soon to be a thousand) people now know their status and are seeking treatment, the support group side of my project was a complete failure. 

But as one door closes, another opens. I realized lately that getting people to show up to any sort of organized meeting is harder than pulling out teeth. So, I come to the conclusion that  if people aren’t going to show up to me, I’m going to show up to them and force them to listen to what I have to say. I know, it sounds like I’m torturing my community members, but I hope one day they’ll realize this pain is for their own good. 

My new approach to spreading community health knowledge is to lead health talks at the hospital on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays on a certain health topic (which rotates weekly) for the inpatients. At any given time there are usually 15-20 inpatients and their family members mingling about our hospital compound. Whilst they mingle and cook in the evenings, I educate them on (mal)nutrition, malaria, family planning, and whatever else strikes my fancy. This, thus far, has been a wild success. All the women gather around me (because the majority of our inpatients are women and children) as their pots of boiling sauce simmer in the kitchen hut. They huddle around me and my drawings, with their tops off and their boobs sagging to their knees, to listen to what I have to say.

One week I was educating on malnutrition and a balanced diet and I discussed how at very meal they should be eating carbs/starches, vegetables and fruit. One woman raised her hand after examining my maison de nourriture (food pyramid) and she insisted, “We don’t have any of that food to eat”.  “You don’t have what food to eat?”, I asked.
“We don’t have fruits or vegetables - only corn!”, she replied
“What season is it right now?”, I demanded.
“Rainy season,” she quickly replied.
“Okay, and what can you buy in the market?” I asked. “Mangoes, avocados, bananas, folere…” She replied, and then suddenly she stopped, looked at me and laughed, “Ohh!! We do have these foods you talk about!”

The people in my community, especially those from the small encampments en brousse, insist that they have no food and that is a fact of life. Few realize that while our selection isn’t vast, we do have some fruits and vegetables that are able to sustain us. Not to mention, starting a garden would be insanely easy if anyone had the determination. 

My health discussions aren’t wildly interesting (at least to me), but at least I’m reaching a large group of community members, and I can only hope they are retaining half of what I say - although my translator tends to go on epic digressions which discuss completely irrelevant tidbits, so I hope my community isn’t retaining his useless rantings. 

I've now got less than 4 months left in Cameroon, so the time I have remaining to work is dwindling down as I wrap up my projects. I'm finishing up my HIV project, attempting to get my tri-weekly health talks on solid ground so it that it might function after I'm gone, and trying to enjoy what little time left I have in Cameroon. It's not been smooth sailing recently, but time is sure flying. 

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