May 12th, 2016 by | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

During the last seven months of my Peace Corps service, I am featuring photographs and stories of several persons with disabilities living in Cameroon. All the photos are part of a series called “Persons with Disabilities of Cameroon.” The goal of presenting photographs and their stories is to create better awareness about the plights that persons with disabilities face in a developing country. When I return to the US, I hope to exhibit this series in a gallery and publish a book to educate others about persons with disabilities living in developing countries as this topic is so rarely discussed in the media.

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Antonia, Aidriking’s mother spends time playing with her sons.

Antonia, a Cameroonian, was living in Tunis, Tunisia in 2011 working as a personal assistant for a diplomat of African Development Bank.  During her 10 to 12 weeks pregnancy, she learned through ultrasound that her unborn child that she was carrying has Down Syndrome.  If she was in Cameroon, she would have never known that she was pregnant with a child with Down Syndrome.  Ultrasounds do not exist except in the two largest cities, Douala and Yaounde, and they are available only to pregnant women who are wealthy and have the financial means to pay for it.  Most women in Cameroon even never know the gender of their child until the baby is born.

Abortion was presented to Antonia as an option. She was counseled. She was presented with information about the challenges of raising a child with Down Syndrome. She was encouraged to have an abortion. She said “No” to abortion because she was already aware of Down Syndrome. She first met a 14 year old girl in Cameroon with Down Syndrome who was raped repeatedly by a neighbor and she died from being raped in late 1990’s in Bamenda. She saw a 3 year old girl with Down Syndrome who was abandoned in a stream and died in the early 1990’s in Mamfe, a village near Bamenda where she grew up.  She said that this is a village tradition that has been practiced in many parts of Cameroon. They believe that children with Down Syndrome are snakes.

Two years before she was pregnant, she met a girl with Down Syndrome in a church in Tunisia who was from the U.S. She was attending the church with a friend from the US who was a medical student her .  When she saw the girl with Down Syndrome, she said to her friend, “She looks like one of those funny children in Cameroon.”  The medical student said “no, it’s Down Syndrome.”

“After church, she taught me about Down Syndrome. She educated me on the chromosome 21 replication. So, I now knew what Down Syndrome was and two years later I was pregnant with my first son and with diagnosis of chromosome 21 in testing. ”

When I asked her if she immediately knew that she wanted to keep the baby when she found out that he has Down Syndrome.  She said, “At first I cried. I had so many questions. Why me? I went back to the children in Cameroon. Then the success stories coming from the U.S. It was then I decided to keep my boy.”

When she found out about her son, Aidriking, she called her friend who was a medical student from the U.S. and told her the news.  “She encouraged me to be strong and everything will be fine,” said Antonia.  She gave her information about Buddy Works, an association for people with Down Syndrome. She called the organization and they promised to send her a support kit, but she never received it. She looked up more information about Down Syndrome on the internet all while she was pregnant.

When Aidriking was born, in December 2011 in Tunis, he had a heart defect. He had a laser heart surgery at 2 months which was not effective and so he had to have an open heart surgery. The medical bills for laser heart surgery was too much as it was done in Tunisia. So, she had to bring him back to Cameroon at six months to do the open heart surgery at a lower cost. The open heart surgery was done at 11 months.

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Antonia shares her strong love for her son, Aidriking.

“From there, I decided to start advocating for other children with Down Syndrome because there were a lot of ignorance and a lot of cultural malpractices of these children. So, I decided to tell my story and use my son as an example to show love and care for these children. I think it’s not easy advocating and changing the perception that the society already has about children living with Down Syndrome. So my wish is to open an educational center to train and a home to accommodate because most children with Down Syndrome live on the streets. I’d like for the center to be a school to bring children with Down Syndrome and children without disabilities together. The goal is to provide a mainstream school for children with Down Syndrome,” said Antonia.

She would like to train children with Down Syndrome on life skills. As children with Down Syndrome get older, those who can’t continue mainstream will move vocational training. Those who can continue education, will stay mainstreamed with children without disabilities.

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Aidriking attends a preschool.

Aidriking was enrolled in the best private preschool in the city, Bamenda, last September 2015. He was sent out of the school on the 10th of February, 2016. She received a letter saying that her son could no longer attend the school because other parents were not comfortable with their children being in the same classroom as her son.

Starting a school has always been an idea but since when Aidriking was sent out, she has been more motivated to start the center.

When she was pregnant with Aidriking, she also started thinking about creating a foundation for children with Down Syndrome in Cameroon. She had the option to stay in Tunisia but decided to move back to Cameroon. The foundation, Aidriking’s Foundation became a reality in 2014. ” I went on national television for the first time in Cameroon. It was the first time information about Down Syndrome was on television in Cameroon, ” said Antonia.

After the appearance on television, she had over 200 phone calls and text messages from parents of children with Down Syndrome. They were very happy to have more information. She then had children with Down Syndrome and their families visiting her home to learn more information.

In December 2015, she held the first fundraiser for the foundation. On March 21st, the foundation celebrated Sorld Down Syndrome day for the first time.

She is now forming a support group for families with children with Down syndrome.  She found another school that agreed to take Adriking and he started there in mid-April 2016.

She still faces stigma in the community where they have witchcraft mindset. They tell her that there is a curse in the family, and there is something wrong with the family. They tell her that “He is not a normal child and he’s a snake.” She responds by saying, “I still love my son like any other child like he has the best. Like he’s a king.”

Other parent with children with Down Syndrome have copied her example, and they all fight together to change community members’ perception.

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Antonia sings a song with her sons.

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May 7th, 2016 by | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

During the last seven months of my Peace Corps service, I am featuring photographs and stories of several persons with disabilities living in Cameroon. All the photos are part of a series called “Persons with Disabilities of Cameroon.” The goal of presenting photographs and their stories is to create better awareness about the plights that persons with disabilities face in a developing country. When I return to the US, I hope to exhibit this series in a gallery and publish a book to educate others about persons with disabilities living in developing countries as this topic is so rarely discussed in the media.

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Dr. Alfred Ndi is one of the very few persons with disabilities who is financially successful.  It was his parents’ dedication to ensuring that he received the best quality of education growing and his determination that allowed him to succeed in receiving a PhD and becoming a professor at University of Bamenda.  In spite of being a successful person, like all other persons with disabilities in Cameroon, he still faces barriers.

He had polio when he was two and a half years old. He was walking and playing with ease before having polio.  When he was diagnosed with polio, he had fever and was taken to the hospital by his parents. The doctor applied quinnimax injection.  His legs then became weak. “Back in the early 1960’s in Cameroon, people did not understand quinnimax and its effects,” said Dr. Ndi.

Shortly after his diagnosis of polio, Dr. Ndi said that neighbors said that witchcraft caused paralysis. “My parents refused to hear those words,” he said.

“They tried all kinds of remedies such as traditional medicines. Hospital medicines.  [Then] somebody advised my parents not to waste time on treatments and send me to school,” he said.  His parents were taking him to place to place for traditional treatments for several years.  He did not finally start going to a primary school, Presbyterian Boys School, until the age of nine years old in 1970 in Limbe where he was born and raised.

“I was very intelligent. I was promoted twice. The teachers in class one felt like they were wasting me time and so they sent me to class two. Then in class two in the same year, I passed the exams to class three. Then in class three, the teachers saw that they were wasting me time and so they promoted me to class four. I wrote the exam for class four and passed and went to class five. Class six and seven , I passed the first school living certificate in 1975, and I graduated from primary school.”

Dr. Ndi experienced some bullying due to his disability and inability to play sports while attending primary school.  “I remember in primary school the children made fun of me because I was the only disabled person in the school and so, they liked to play with me but I did not like to play and so they did not understand why I did not like to play. For instance, they would force me to play football with them. I would fall down when playing football especially when I would try to kick the ball and miss it. And so I lost my balance. So, I did not like to play football but the children enjoyed seeing me fall down. So I refused to play football, they will bully me and try to beat me if I did not go play football with them. I used my sticks to kick the ball and I missed the ball. But I was a good goal keeper and I never missed to stop the ball from entering the goal post.”

Dr. Ndi grew up in a home with very loving but strict parents.  “My parents especially my mother was disciplinary. My mother would discipline me very much. She would not let me go out and visit and play with friends even to the Botanical Gardens.  So she was very strict with me,” he said. “I sneaked when I went to school especially during the break time because the school was next to the gardens. My parents would control me a lot,” said Dr. Ndi.

When I asked him if they were strict to him because of his disability, he said, ” I think it was partly because of my disability but also because they loved me very much. They were afraid that if they allowed me to move around, I may get into problems of any kind. So it was a way of them to protect me because I am the only son. I was an inquisitive child because I liked to go out and see things and experiment things but that was not to the liking of my parents. They wanted me to stay by their side. They were afraid that I may go out and have an accident and they would lose me.”

Then he went to secondary school called Government Secondary School in Limbe and graduated from there in 1980.  Then from 1980 to 1982, he went to high school at CCAST Bambili, a village near Bamenda.   Then in 1985, he finished first degree in bilingual studies.  From 1984 to 1985, while he was studying for his first degree, he studied in France at Université Jean Moulin III in Lyon.  After completing his first degree, he went to the UK to participate in a program on knowledge management.   Then he returned to Cameroon where he completed a masters degree in applied linguistics in 1987 and a post-masters called M.Phil in cultural studies 1991.  Then he finally began pursuing his PhD in 1991 in knowledge management and critical studies and completed it in 2006.

While pursuing his masters degree and PhD, he taught at University of Yaounde I from 1986 to 1991. Then he relocated to Bamenda and began teaching at University of Bamenda in 1992.  Today, he is still teaching at University of Bamenda.

“As a professor, do you face any kind of discrimination because of your disability?” I asked Dr. Ndi.

“No. Not any kind of discrimination. On contrary, the school administrators and my colleagues, they respect me a lot,” he said.

“What kind of challenges do you face as an adult with disability?” I asked.

“Accessibility. Like getting to a building. No ramps. No lifts,” he said.

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Dr. Ndi demonstrates his struggles to use the stairs.

Dr. Ndi took me to a bank one day that had a ramp.  When he showed me the ramp at the bank, he shared with me that he advocated to get the bank build the ramp.  “I talked with the bank director and because I have a bank account with them, I told him that if they don’t build a ramp, I will bring all disabled persons here and have them block the bank until the ramp is built.  It took six months of constant reminders for them to finally decide to build this ramp and the decision to build a ramp was taken and it took them just one month to build it.  And after they built it, many other banks followed the suit and built their own ramps.  So, on Commercial Avenue, you’ll see ramps built in front of banks.  And I also persuaded University of Bamenda to build ramps into all facilities and schools of the university and they complied.  Churches are also building ramps thanks to this example.”

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Dr. Ndi shows the ramp that he was able to persuade the bank to build.

“I don’t look at challenge as a problem. But as an opportunity to help others because I understand very well the difficulties that other disabled person go through when it comes to accessibility issues. So, it’s really not a problem to me because whenever I want to work, I go to a place that has a level ground. I do work in there. I don’t move around in quarters where accessibility is a challenge.  One of the major concerns which I have beyond my disability has to do with the system of higher education in Cameroon. I think that the system is underperforming because it is not managed well and so, it is not competitive enough,” said Dr. Ndi.

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May 5th, 2016 by | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

As I have been working with persons with disabilities in the Northwest region of Cameroon, I have been learning that many of them have been left out of HIV education and services.  When I did my community needs assessment early in my service, I learned that one-fourth of persons with disabilities whom I interviewed never received education on HIV/AIDS, and about half of the persons with disabilities whom I interviewed knew what was anti-retroviral drug and how to prevent the disease.  During the time when I was writing my community needs assessment report, I read case studies about how persons with disabilities faced barriers in receiving HIV services and education throughout the continent of Africa.  The biggest obstacles were discrimination, stigma and ignorance.  There were healthcare workers who wrongly believed that persons with disabilities are not sexually active and therefore, they are not in risk of HIV/AIDS when they are in just a great or in a greater risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS.

When I presented to a group of persons with disabilities in a nearby village, Bali, on HIV prevention many members said there was an HIV testing campaign that happened not too long before I presented to them but they were never informed about the event and did not know about it until after the event.

At other presentations on HIV prevention, I have been astonished to learn how much knowledge persons with disabilities lacked in how HIV is transmitted and how they can prevent the transmission.  The pre-tests scores were an evidence as many of them scored poorly.

Also, when I provided training to healthcare workers and mobilizers in Mbakaou, a rural village in Adamawa, the pre-tests showed that half of the participants had believed that persons with disabilities are not sexually active and are immune to HIV/AIDS.

Therefore, based on my speaking with persons with disabilities, reading case studies, and seeing the test results, I saw there was a need to provide training to healthcare workers on how to accommodate persons with disabilities when it comes to HIV education and services.

During the month of April, I hosted three trainings for healthcare workers on how to accommodate persons with disabilities when it comes to HIV education and services.  Each training was provided to three separate health centers, Mezam Polyclinic, a small private hospital, Bamenda Regional Hospital’s HIV treatment center, the largest HIV treatment center in Bamenda, and Foundation Clinic, a small local clinic.

At the trainings, I covered these follow areas:

  • What is disability
  • What is it like to live with a disability
  • Statistics
  • How persons with disabilities are left out of HIV services
  • Why do persons with disabilities have unique needs
  • How can healthcare workers better reach out to persons with disabilities
  • How can HIV services be more accessible for persons with disabilities

The training curriculum was developed based on the very successful training done in Mbakaou that resulted in positive changes for the community.

When discussing what is a disability, I explained to them the definition of disability and provided them a list of all types of disabilities such as mobility impairment, deafness, and blindness and all causes such as accidents and genetics.

Throughout the training, I did three hands on demonstrations with them that put them in situations where they felt disabled.  For the first demonstration, I asked them to take their two hands and have their finger tips touch each other except for the index fingers, which I asked them to fold down.  Then I asked them to lift their thumbs, then lift their first fingers and then lift their pinky fingers.  They were able to lift all of those fingers.  Then I asked them to lift their ring fingers, and they were unable to lift.  When I saw their frustration in trying to lift their ring fingers, I told them, “Imagine a person with a disability who has a body part that does not function at all.  They try as hard as they can to get it to work, but they can’t.”

For the second demonstration, I gave each participant a piece of paper.  Then I asked them to write their name on the paper. Then I asked them to write their name with the hand they do not normally write with. I then asked them how was writing with their non-writing hand. They said it was kind of hard. I told them, “This is the life of a person with mild disability.  Imagine a person with disability who walks with a limp.  The person can walk but at a slower pace and may not always be able to run.  Imagine a person with visual impairment who can see a little bit.  That person can’t see small prints but can read large prints.  Imagine a person with some hearing loss.  That person can hear some words but can’t pick up all words.”

Then I asked them to put the paper on their head and write with their normal writing hand. They giggled and expressed frustration by saying it was hard. I said, “This is the life of a person with moderate to severe disability.  Imagine for those with mobility disability who have to use crutches to move around.  Imagine a visually impaired person who can see but can’t read print at all.  Imagine a person with hearing loss who can hear noises but cannot understand speech at all.”

Then I asked them to put the paper on top of their head again and write with their non-writing hand. They were all absolutely hysterical as they laughed while trying with great difficulties to write with their non-writing hand on a paper on top of their head.  I said to them, “This is the life of those with severe disabilities.  This is the life of a person who is bound to a wheelchair and cannot walk at all.  This is the life of a person who is blind and cannot see a thing.  This is the life of a person who is deaf and cannot hear a single sound.”  It was a moment that made them say, “Aha!”

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For the third and last demonstration, I gave everyone two cotton balls and asked them to put the cotton balls in their ears.  I had one of my work partners read a text to them.  Then when I asked them to take the cotton balls out of the ears and asked, “How well did you hear?”  They all said that they couldn’t hear well.  One woman raised her hand and said, “I now know that next time when I meet someone who can’t hear well, I need to be patient with the person, make sure I speak clearly and take the time to write down notes for the person.”

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I shared statistics to help them better understand the situation of persons with disabilities in Cameroon.  Here are the statistics I shared:

  • There are one billion persons with disabilities – Fifteen percent of the population is persons with disabilities. (WHO)
  • 95% of persons with disabilities are the poorest of the poor. (Peace Corps Act)
  • Only 35% of persons with disabilities work while 77% of people without disabilities work.
  • Three-fourths of all persons with disabilities living in low-­ and middle-­income countries are women with disabilities.
  • Sixty-five to 70% of women with disabilities who live in low-­ and middle-­income countries live in rural areas.
  • Women with disabilities face the challenge of preventing HIV because they are in increased risk for gender based violence and lack access to sexual reproductive health care services. (USAID)
  • Only two percent of all Cameroonians have received formal education. (CUAPWD)
  • Only 5% of women with disabilities are married while 50% of men with disabilities are married in Cameroon (Kiani).

Participants expressed shock and disbelief by the numbers especially about how many persons with disabilities have received education, how poor they are and how many persons with disabilities exist in the world.

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When talking with them about how persons with disabilities are left out of HIV services, I explained to them how educational services, which includes workshops and schools, are inaccessible to persons with disabilities as there are no sign language interpreters for those who are deaf and no braille for those who are blind.  Also, some workshops and schools have stairs and no ramps for those who use wheelchairs or crutches.  I also explained how persons with disabilities are not able to come to health centers for the same reason as why they are unable to go to educational services.  I also explained to them about how they are not informed about HIV testing campaigns and sensitizations.

When explaining to them about why persons with disabilities have unique needs, I shared that because so few go to school, healthcare workers need to make sure they get education on HIV prevention from somewhere.  Even when they are invited to HIV educational events, there is a need to ensure that accommodations are put in place such as providing a sign language interpreter, transcript, and braille and also make sure it takes place in a building that is accessible to those who have mobility disability.  I also explained that persons with disabilities are already facing a stigma and so, when if they do become infected with HIV, they then face double stigma and greater discrimination.  Also, they could become even more disabled if they are infected with HIV as HIV can affect the vision and movement of the body.   They also need accommodations when receiving services.

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At the end of the training, we discussed how can healthcare workers reach out to persons with disabilities and provide accommodations.  They shared great ideas which include:

  • Create an informational video on HIV/AIDS in sign language
  • Communicate more effectively with those who are hard of hearing and have low literacy level.  Use simple language.  Speak more slowly and have greater patience.
  • Introduce sign language in nurse training schools
  • Have all handouts translated to braille

The healthcare workers raised some very valid concerns which include:

  • There are no funds for sign language interpreters.  Even if they advise patients who are deaf to bring a family member, family members normally do not know sign language at all.  Many deaf people are also illiterate, which means that communicating through writing is also not an option.  Therefore there is no way for the family member and healthcare worker to know the issues that the patient is facing and how the patient is feeling if there is no way for the patient to relay the information to the family member or to the healthcare worker.
  • There are also no funds for building ramps and adding an elevator.  Elevator is a very rare sight in Cameroon.
  • There are no funds to help transport persons with disabilities from their homes to the nearest HIV treatment center.  Many persons with disabilities stay in their homes all day and never leave their homes.

In spite of the valid challenges that healthcare workers raised, they expressed gratitude for the training because they now know who they can consult when they need assistance in providing accommodations for persons with disabilities and that is, the Coordinating Unit of Association for Persons with Disabilities (CUAPWD), the organization with whom I’ve been partnering during my service.  In other words, the trainings has helped, the health centers and CUAPWD, establish a relationship with each other.

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May 4th, 2016 by | Tags: , | No Comments »

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Art is near and dear to my heart.  I grew up with passion in drawing, painting, sculpting, graphic design and going to art museums.  I graduated from an art school with a degree in photography.  In Cameroon, unlike in the US, art is not valued and is often a rare treasure.  Thanks to a restaurant that displays beautiful paintings, I was able to connect to an artist based in Cameroon.  To learn more about the situation of artists in Cameroon, I interviewed the artist who created beautiful paintings that are displayed in the restaurant.

Tell me about yourself.

I’m Blaise, known as Blaise Afrique.  Afrique is not a name.  It’s more like a verb to describe my work.  I’ve been painting for six years.  Art in Cameroon is more like hidden.

How did you become interested in art?

As a child, I loved to draw from observations.  I could draw food like oranges.  I could conceive images in my head and draw it.  Although as a child, my drawings were more like a child.  So around secondary school, during long vacation, my father would send me to an artist workshop.  The funny thing is that the artists were not teaching me how to paint.  It was more like commercial art like billboards and t-shirts and badges and stamps and once in a while, some people needed a painting on billboard.  So then at that point, I could observe the master painting of the billboard.  [The teacher] was not into painting as an art, but he used it more like additive element in commercial art.  He produced no professional painting.  I was frustrated because I wanted to learn how to paint and produce art.  I quit going to those workshops during the long vacations.  Even though I quit, I still had a feeling for art, and I kept drawing in color pencils.  Even though I kept drawing and drawing with color pencils even during the last year of high school.  I believe the turning point was created in high school where I felt a strong impact.  The [high school] teacher noticed my talent in drawing even though I was a science student.  So, I was to present in the school art competition.  Well the good thing is I was able to win.  So from there, I felt my time more to art.  Though it was my final year in high school, and I had exams, I had to figure out a way to bring my book work and art together.

By then, I finished high school and like every young Cameroonian, I had to write a concur [entrance exam] to be trained as a teacher, but they did not work.  [Rachel’s note: In Cameroon, many exam takers often wrongly do not pass entrance exams due to corruption and not giving bribes.]  Then, I wrote a concur to be a trained as a nurse and succeeded but my dad did not have the money to pay for my training.  So in all the frustration, I embraced art.  I fully embraced it.  When I had difficulty [painting], I was aware of the fact that I needed to be trained.

At that point, I realized that the only art school in Cameroon was in Fouban in the West.  I wanted some information to be sure the school was outstanding compared to other art universities around the world.  So, I went to a Brazilian friend even though he was old, around 60 years and he was an artist too and an art teacher in Brazil before coming to Cameroon as a missionary.  After we visited the university, he told me it was not outstanding.  So, he told me it would be a waste of time.  So he promised me to train me on personal basis as long as I would buy every material I needed.  At that point, I started to teach mathematics in secondary school as a PTA [Parent Teacher Association] teacher.  I taught mathematics in form [grade] 1 and 3 in a new school that had just opened.  So during that time, I was able to save money for my salary to get materials for painting and clay model.  I did a two year program with the Brazilian teacher.

After that, I was able to get a sculpture that fetched me money to invest into painting.  So I brought paintings, materials and started painting.  From the time I started painting, I kept on searching for a style, but I decided to stay open to all art work I come across.  So initially, I was able to see artist like from books.  During training, I started looking in books and even internet to see the works of great artists of all times like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Jackson Pollock, Picasso, French impressionist painters like Monet, Manet, and Matisse, and Mondrian. I didn’t get inspired by the work of this generation [today’s generation in Cameroon].  I was inspired by artists form the past, especially Picasso and Salvador Dali.  In abstraction, I was inspired by Picasso.  In surrealism, I was inspired by Salvador Dali.  So, personally I decided to concentrate on abstract and surrealism.  So I’ve been painting and I kept improving and evolving.

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How would you like to bring art from being a hidden treasure to the forefront?

First of all, it’s a difficult task on a personal base.  So to do that, I need to be able to encourage more people to become artist and the only way to do this is to incorporate art into educational system so that every educated Cameroonian can be able to appreciate art that way more people will be able to become artist.  Because as of now, people don’t look at it like it can be professional.  They always look at it as a hobby.

The second, more and more people need to invest in art materials because even artist are discouraged because of the cost of materials.  Even when you have the money, sometimes you can’t get materials because they are not there.

The third, even the few artists that are here in Cameroon, they don’t collaborate.  The artists hate each other.  Recently, I received a call from another artist I respect very much claiming that I copied his work.  Meanwhile I don’t visit his workshop and I don’t even know his website.  He was the first artist I encountered as professional.  He used to be around at art competitions in high school.  I visited his workshop once for ten minutes to ask to be trained.  There was a time, I was teaching a Korean girl how to paint and I had to travel for two weeks.  So I sent her to this artist so that he could train her for two weeks while I was away.  When I returned, the student returned to me but when he called, he also mentioned that I took the student from him.  When I asked him to meet me so that I would know how I copied his work, the discussion ended.  So because of this, there is no collaboration because every artist feel superior.  Old artist don’t want to encourage new artists. If there is collaboration, maybe there is a possibility for artist to access art materials at cheaper price.  Because of that, the system remains like that.

In Cameroon, there are no art stores?

Foreigners are the people who are investing in art materials in Cameroon.  Few Cameroonians are invested in art materials.  I have to go to Douala to get materials because there is no place in Bamenda.  So you can imagine being an artist and a single tube gets finished, and I have to travel all the way down to Douala to get it.  It’s an eight hour journey in bus that is all together 16 hours round trip.  So you can imagine the difficulty.  You can imagine what young artist can face.  That is an artist who cannot buy a huge stock of materials.  The young people I’m training always have this difficulty.  The young people I’m training buy maybe five tubes and then when they run out, they have to go to Douala and they may not have the money to pay for the journey to restock.

Are there art museums in Cameroon?

There is one in Yaounde and one in Douala that I know of.  I have been to the one in Douala.

How do you sell your work?

I have three possibilities to sell work.  I have advertised to my Facebook page, Blaise Afrique Gallery.  Also I sell through a restaurant, Travelers.  I have a permanent show of my work there.  This restaurant has customers like Peace Corps Volunteers and Cameroonians who are appreciative of my work and love to eat there.  Also, I have friends who are into interior decor and so, they are able to propose work to their customers.  The last is I go to churches, [show paintings on my tablet], and say, “I can do this for you.”  So in the future, when they have a job, they call me and I do it.  That is basically for painting murals.

Can you tell me the very first time you sold a painting?

I used to keep my paintings at Handicraft restaurant.  So, there I don’t know if my paintings were sold or stolen but I noticed that there was no response when I asked about a painting I did [that was once on display but no longer there].  I talked to the Handicraft restaurant, and they told me nothing.  So, I stopped keeping my art there.  I never got money from there.  I think six months later, after I stopped putting art there, I got a contract to supply 20 paintings to Ambit Hotel.  I think that was the very first time I got paid for a painting .  They learned about me from Handcraft restaurant.

But my best customers have been Peace Corps Volunteers.  So, the very first Peace Corps Volunteer who bought a painting from the restaurant, Travelers, was Nadia, and she was also the very first customer to buy a painting from Travelers.  Then Alex came,  Then you came and then Tara came and Tara’s friends came, and it spread to others.  Tara’s mother came.  Then I also have Cameroonians and foreigners.  There is a woman who is into forestry who came and bought painting.  I have sold four paintings to the regional hospital and then to some people in law.  I have Cameroonian friends who come [from America] here during Christmas season to buy paintings and take back to America.  I have a friend who takes my work to sell in Italy.

When you first sold the painting to Nadia, is that when your business bloomed?

Yes, my artist came alive.

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Blaise’s paintings are beautifully displayed at Travelers, a restaurant that is popular among the Peace Corps Volunteers.

How did you get Travelers to agree to display your paintings?

I can say it was one of my biggest difficulties in my marketing.  But even though initially, I must get the woman who owns the place to agree.  So, the very first time I went to her, she refused.  When she refused, I knew I had to make her see the need for my art on her walls.  She told me she did not have money to buy art.  But I told her I was not interested in selling work to her.  But I was just interested in collaborating with her.  So, I left the place and came back after some time to see her again.  I prepared what to tell her.  I told her imagine your customers coming to buy food, and there is art all over the place.  While waiting [for food], they have beautiful art to admire and spend time.  They will not notice how long it takes time to order food.  That way, they will think you’re super fast in serving the food because of the art that occupies them while preparing the food.  So, she listened to these words and said that I had a point but then she asked, “Are you sure that your beautiful art will keep them busy?”  And I said, “yes.”  And she told me to bring the paintings [the next day].  When she saw the paintings, she was surprised because she did not know that I had access to the right materials.  So she never imagined the paintings to be that good but they were beautiful.  We placed them in the restaurant.  After three months, I have my first customer [Nadia].  It was two years ago when I started putting art in the restaurant.

How do envision yourself in the future as an artist?

Personally I see a bright future in art.  Reason being that my work has been commissioned by all kinds of people, foreigners and people who live in Cameroon.  I have been able to paint murals for churches and houses.  I’ve been able to train already two people.  My work continues to attract attention.  So I know there is future in my work.

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April 30th, 2016 by | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

During the last seven months of my Peace Corps service, I am featuring photographs and stories of several persons with disabilities living in Cameroon. All the photos are part of a series called “Persons with Disabilities of Cameroon.” The goal of presenting photographs and their stories is to create better awareness about the plights that persons with disabilities face in a developing country. When I return to the US, I hope to exhibit this series in a gallery and publish a book to educate others about persons with disabilities living in developing countries as this topic is so rarely discussed in the media.

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Anywhere in the world, whether it’s in the US or in Cameroon, when marrying a person with disability, there is often a stigma. Family members and friends of a spouse who is in a relationship with a person with disability will often ask why he or she is marrying the one.  The spouse who marries a person with disability always say that they just simply love the person.  The spouse looks beyond the disability and see for who the person is inside the body.

Samuel who is married to a lovely lady and is president of Coordinating Unit of Association for Persons with Disabilities (CUAPWD), was ten years old when he noticed he was going blind and then he became completely blind at the age of 14 years due to Onchocerciasis.  When he was going blind, he said, “I was developing coping mechanism. My family did not know what to do with me.”

When I asked him how did he transition from being able to see to becoming blind, he said, “I was at home for two years doing nothing.”  He did also say that he did drop out of secondary school.

He then eventually started learning how to do various new tasks.  “I started my hands on trying a few activities like cracking stones, filling bags for the nursing of plants with soil, selling small things, and pig farming. And then I later got rehabilitated in cane weaving,” he said.

He also then eventually got married.  He and his wife, Nicoline, both grew up in the same village, Kedjom Keku, but they met in Bamenda.  At the time, Samuel was living and working in Bamenda, and Nicoline who was still living in Kedjom Keku, was visiting her sister who was Samuel’s neighbor. “When she came, I realize she was hardworking and talked about my intentions to her sister because Nicoline was so shy in approaching. Through the sister, we arranged for a meeting and then had the opportunity of telling her my intentions of spending my life with her. It was difficult for her to accept,” said Samuel.

I asked Samuel, “Was it difficult for her to accepted because of your blindness?”

He replied, “Of course.”

“After talking talking with family members and some friends, we were to persuade her to accept my proposal,” said Samuel.

“What helped ease her fears about your disability?” I asked.

“One of the things that helped was that she saw me working, and she saw me doing household chores and take care of my brothers and sisters,” he replied.

“Why did you accept to marry Samuel?” I asked Nicoline.

“I decided to marry him because I love him,” she said.

She faced resistance from her family because she was marrying someone with visual impairment.  Her mother and some of the aunts and sisters mocked her. Samuel’s neighbors helped calm her family’s fears by explaining that he’s hardworking and responsible, and they told stories about him.

“She asked one important question to friends and family members and the question was if she gets married to someone without disability and the person acquired disability within the marriage, what would they advise her to do?” said Samuel.

“What was their response?” I asked.

“It got them to reflect. And she told them it’s better to get married to somebody who have a disability and has accepted and is able to cooperate than someone who acquired disability in a later age. And she reminded them that all of them are temporary able and no one knows what will happen next,” he said.

When I asked what challenges they face in their relationship, Samuel said, “There are no particular. We make it work. We are making it work but there are external challenges. Some people still mock her for marrying me, and they call her ‘the wife of blind man.’ Some people even think she’s exploiting me.”

Shortly after Samuel married Nicoline in 1998, he started an organization called Hope Social Union for the Visually Impaired in 2003.  He said he started the organization “to restore hope to visually impaired based on my experience and exploit.”  Then, he founded the CUAPWD in 2005.  Samuel shared interesting reasons why he started CUAPWD: “When I was president of Hope Social Union for the Visual Impaired, I realize there was negative competition among associations and leaders, and there was exploitations of persons with disabilities. So that’s why the Coordinating Unit was formed. The Coordinating Unit of Association for Persons with Disabilities was established to create a platform for a dialogue among leaders and associations for us to be able to compliment each other and direct resources credibly to all persons with disabilities both in urban and rural communities so that they can have a voice to promote the rights for an inclusive society for all. “

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