Just before I joined the Peace Corps, I was warned that I will likely lose at least one person with whom I will have built a good rapport during the service. One of my biggest fears became a reality when I just learned last night that one of my most incredible work partners, Dorcas, just passed away suddenly from illness last Friday night. She was a very highly educated and bright woman who provided the most informative HIV trainings for Peace Corps Volunteers in the past year. She also worked closely with me on my malaria and HIV projects. My malaria workshops have been successful because of her. She invited me to her home a few times and even fed me lunch and provided me invaluable assistance in preparing for my malaria and HIV workshops. She would take the time to read my project proposals and give me feedback. In spite of her very busy schedule as she was a professor at a university and was working on her PhD, she even came to my host organization’s office on a few occasions to provide guidance on how to start a support group for people with disabilities living with HIV/AIDS. Even just two months ago, she helped me prepare my application for PEPFAR grant to acquire funding to do massive HIV testing for persons with disabilities. She guided me on the best approach on how to exactly do the testing event. She was just about get a PhD in South Africa. Even though she was already a grown adult with two young children, she still had so much bright future ahead of her. While she was already helping make a difference in the disability community (she already had been working very closely with many of my other work partners for many years), she was destined to make an even bigger impact on the world through community health education. She will be greatly missed by both the Peace Corps community and disability community. I’m still in shock and it does not seem to real to the point that I wanted to make sure I was mishearing the news and I asked my counterpart, “Is this true?” and “Are we talking about this same person who we know?”
I hosted a Thanksgiving feast for my work partners this evening as part of Peace Corps’ second goal which is to educate the host country nationals about the American culture. As Turkey is extremely difficult to find in Cameroon, I served chicken instead, which was prepared by one of my favorite restaurants in Bamenda. I cooked mashed potatoes and green beans and carrots. I also made a pumpkin pie using the dutch oven technique, and it came out very delicious.
I incorporated a small nutrition lesson by showing them what a well-balanced meal looks like. In fact, before I explained what a well-balanced diet looks like to the guests, one of the guests said to me as he was looking at the plate and starting to eat, “This is what a well-balanced diet looks like. We have carbohydrates here, vitamins and minerals and proteins.” This person had just attended a workshop on nutrition which I hosted a month ago for a small group of persons with disabilities. It was great to see that he had retained the information.
We also discussed the history of Thanksgiving including the story that young children are told, the real history of pilgrims’ relationship with the Native Americans, and how the day became a national holiday.
After living and working in Cameroon’s third largest city as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I finally had an opportunity to get a taste of living and working in a rural village with another Peace Corps Volunteer, Alex. It’s important to note that I have never visited another volunteer’s post except for one who lived about 20 minutes outside of Bamenda for a dinner. Two weeks ago, I took a 12 hour train ride from Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, to Ngaoundal, a town closest to Alex’s post. Alex and I greeted each other with a big hug at the train station at 6:30 AM in the morning. We were so happy to see each other again after not having seen each other for a month. Alex then took me to a car heading to the town closest to his village, Tibati. Alex and I both got in the front seat and shared the seat together. In Cameroon, drivers squeeze as many people as they can in car. There were eight people including us and plus the driver in the car heading to Tibati. The drive was two hours on a reasonably paved road. I was honestly surprised by how well paved the road was. I thought the entire road would be unpaved. Once we finally reached Tibati, we found a moto bike driver to drive us to Mbakaou, the village where Alex lives. We then took a one hour moto bike ride to his village. Once we arrived at his village, I immediately noticed many differences between living in a village and in a city.
The travel to Alex’s village gave me the feeling of wanting to give many volunteers who live in the remote villages a tremendous respect for the travels they have to face every month to the capitals for banking or other administration related reasons. There are many banks at my post but there are no banks at Alex’s post. This means that Alex has to travel an hour bike ride, a two hour bush taxi ride and then a train ride every month to the capital of his region just to get his monthly allowance. If I get sick, I can take a two minute walk to the nearest hospital. Alex has to take an hour moto bike ride to the nearest hospital. However, there is a small health clinic in the village but it can only provide basic medical care needs including prenatal care and labor. While I have running water, Alex has to go outside and get water from a well. While some villages have no electricity, Alex has been fortunate to have good access to electricity due to living very close to a dam. However, every night except for the first night I was there, the lights were out. This was unusual according to Alex.
As I walked through the village center which was about only 20 meters long on one road, I immediately noticed there was a lack of variety of food. In Bamenda, while I can find tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, water leaves, onions, avocados, watermelon, potatoes, oranges and bananas on daily basis, I only found onions on daily basis in Mbakaou. I did see avocados and bananas a couple times. Because Mbakaou is located by the lake, fresh grilled fish are found on daily basis. I was able to taste the grilled fish and it was so good that I ordered another fish. It tastes like a very high quality fish that came from a fine dining restaurant. Because there is an abundant amount of cows, fresh beef is also readily found. Speaking of the village center, there are a couple shops that sells basic needs such as toilet paper, soap and bread. The village does have a market but it happens only once a week, and vendors come from other towns nearby.
In spite of some downsides in the village, I found so many beauty in the village that made me wish sometimes that I was living in the village. There are big sprawling fields with trees scattered everywhere along with big bushes of gorgeous dandelions. Goats were spotted everywhere. While I have seen a few goats in Bamenda, I think I have seen far more goats in Mbakaou than I have in a year in Bamenda. The fields provide an ample amount of space for farming. Children are spotted everywhere playing outside. In Bamenda, while there are children, I rarely see them playing outside. As I spent some time playing with children from Alex’s compound, I commented to him that I wished I have the opportunity to play with children in Bamenda. They were so adorable and playful.
During many mornings and evenings, Alex and I took nice strolls outside to enjoy the beautiful sceneries. We not only enjoyed viewing sunrises and sunsets but also stars, which is something that can’t always be sighted in the city.
Like with anything in the world, there are pros and cons to living in the village and also the city. Regardless of where PCVs are posted, our experiences are unique.
Last February, shortly after I gave a presentation on my Community Needs Assessment at In-service Training, Alex came to me and said, “I want you to come to my post and help me start a disability group and train healthcare workers to work with persons with disabilities.” Alex mentioned to me that in his compound, there are two persons with disabilities and a number of others in his village. He told me that some have never seen the lake before which is located right by the village. After several months of coordinating the training and set up with the help of my counterpart, Ruth, Alex’s counterpart, and a couple people from Peace Corps, I finally had the opportunity to travel to a little village in southern Adamawa, Mbakaou, where Alex is posted to train healthcare workers and change agents how to work with persons with disabilities when it comes to HIV, malaria and nutrition issues and start a support group.
The training was conducted over the course of two days at the local health center in the village. There were ten attendees total although eight showed up on both days and one came on the first day and the other came on the second day. While we had the chief of the health center, nurse, vaccine campaigner, and a healthcare worker, we also had ordinary locals who simply wanted be change agents by making contributions to their community. These locals included a barber, chief of Muslims, business woman, farmer and minister.
On the first day, Alex and I educated them on the definition of disability, different types of disabilities, causes of disabilities and statistics. We also conducted three activities to help them better understand what it is like to live with the disability.
For the first activity, I asked everyone to fold back the middle finger and have it pressed against the table while the other fingers sit straight out. Then I ask them to lift up the thumb, pinky and then index finger, each finger at a time. Then I ask them to lift up the ring finger, which was impossible.
The second activity was such a success that gave all the attendees an “aha” moment. I handed out two pieces of paper to all attendees. 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. Then I asked them to put the paper on their head and write with their normal writing hand. They then all said it was hard. I said, “Well, imagine what it’s like for persons with disabilities to live with an inability to do something.” 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 and expressed a great amount of frustration in not being able to write normally. “This is the reality of the life of many of those with severe disabilities. Imagine if you were in that situation,” I said.
For the third activity, I gave everyone two cotton balls and ask them to put them in their ears. Then I asked one of the attendees to read a passage. Then I asked them if they were able to understand what they were hearing. They said they struggled to understand what was being said. “Imagine those who have hearing loss or deaf,” I told them.
On the second day, we went in depth about the issues that persons with disabilities face in getting education, services and treatment for HIV/AIDS, why persons with disabilities are just as vulnerable as children and pregnant mothers for malaria, and why persons with disabilities face serious malnutrition.
After sharing the information, we conducted another activity to demonstrate the difficulties of living with a disability, specifically blindness. We split the attendees into four groups and handed a handkerchief to each group. One person in each group had to cover the eyes with the handkerchief. The other group members had to assist the person wearing the blindfold. Each group stood a couple meters from the entrance of the health center. They all had to race to the entrance of the health center. They certainly couldn’t leave the persons wearing the blindfold behind. The persons wearing the blindfold had to reach the health center. While those who were unable to see struggled to walk to the health center, those who assisted saw the struggles too. The expressed a great amount of frustrations.
After the activity, we asked them what can we do to improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities by providing them better access to services and education. Many of them strongly suggested starting a support group. They set up an action plan. We all agreed to reconnect two days later and attendees would bring in persons with disabilities to start the group.
The attendees also completed the pre- and post-tests. The results were quite interesting. On the pre-test almost everyone have not worked with persons with disabilities. Only two have worked with them. More than havlf said that persons with disabilities are not sexually active. Half said that persons with disabilities are not vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. All except for two responded correctly that women with disabilities can be pregnant. Some did not indicate that persons with disabilities are vulnerable to malaria like pregnant women and children although many did indicate that persons with disabilities are vulnerable to malnutrition.
On the post-test, everyone responded that they would like to work with persons with disabilities. Everyone responded correctly that persons with disabilities are just as sexually active as persons with disabilities and vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. All responded correctly that women with disabilities can be pregnant. All correctly indicated that persons with disabilities are just as vulnerable to malaria and malnutrition as other populations.
We reconnected two days later and three persons with disabilities along with several of those who attended the training came. We created an outline of goals and objectives and a list of activities to conduct in the group which included conducting education on health issues and trainings on income generation activities. They also set a date for all of them to come together again which will be at the end of the week. They encouraged each other to bring in more persons with disabilities as there is certainly a high number of them in the community.
I’m currently in Mbakaou, a village in southern Adamawa, visiting Alex’s post for the very first time (finally!!!) to collaborate a project with him.
Alex and I both have been stargazing for the past two nights. It’s been a few years since I have been in a countryside where I could see stars. Even though I can’t see stars as well as those with normal vision, I was still very relieved to be able to still see them even though most of them were very very dim. But as long as we keep funding the research for a cure for vision loss, I am sure that I will regain the vision to see the stars very well again one day.
More details to come on Alex and my collaboration project and life in Mbakaou.