When Cameroon does a massive mosquito net distribution, they give children under 5 years old and pregnant women the priority to have mosquito nets. This is because children under 5 years old have not yet built their immunity against malaria and pregnant women face the risk of miscarriage when being ill with malaria. Moreover, the government provides free consultation for malaria to children under 5 years old. I strongly believe that persons with disability should be counted as the most vulnerable population along with children under 5 years old and pregnant women when it becomes to preventing malaria and being ill with it.
Malaria is a parasite transmitted by mosquitos that causes illnesses. Symptoms include headache, fever, fatigue, muscular pain, chills, sweating, nausea and vomiting. In severe cases, malaria can cause mini-stroke, abnormal behavior, coma and death.
Malaria is caused by the parasite Plasmodium. Each female anopheles, a type of mosquito, has a vector that carries the parasite. When a female anopheles carrying the parasite Plasmodium bites a person, the person becomes ill with malaria. Then when a female anopheles without the parasite Plasmodium bites a person who is ill with malaria, this female anopheles then gets the parasite Plasmodium. Then this female anopheles with the parasite Plasmodium can go bite another healthy person who would then become sick with malaria. The cycle repeats. Female anopheles bite only during the night time, typically around between 8 PM and 6 AM in the morning. This is why sleeping under the mosquito net is important.
When if a person with disability become ill with malaria, most are unable to go to a health clinic. We have to keep in mind that 95% of persons with disability are the poorest of the poor. This means that because they are facing severe financial hardship, they are unable to afford to see a doctor to find out if they have malaria and purchase a medication to treat malaria. Moreover, they do not have the financial means to pay for transportation to a health clinic. Even if they did have some money to go to a health clinic, many are unable to get a transportation because many taxi and bike drivers deny them access as they are too impatient to assist persons with disability in getting in the car or on the bike. Even if they don’t deny them access, many will charge a higher price.
So, when persons with disability do not consult a doctor and get a medication, they face the risk of becoming sicker and gaining a permanent damage to their body which means an additional disability. They could even face the risk of dying.
I want to implore the government and also organizations to give an extra attention to persons with disability along with children under 5 and pregnant women as they do truly face greater challenges and risks when they become ill with malaria.
Prior to joining the Peace Corps, I worked for a non-profit organization full-time for two years. I made a policy not to friend any of my colleagues on Facebook while I was working at the organization. I had nothing to hide on Facebook. I just wanted to set clear boundaries between my professional and personal life. I didn’t want to bring my personal life to work. I also didn’t want my colleagues to think that my spending time socializing with friends at pubs and restaurants would be an interference at work.
When I joined the Peace Corps, I debated whether or not I should be Facebook friends with Host Community Nationals, people who would be my work partners. I was already Facebook friends with many Peace Corps Volunteers from my group prior to moving to Cameroon because we needed each other’s support to share our ups and downs and answer each other’s questions relating to the big move. However, for Host Community Nationals, I was on the fence. These were the people with whom I would be working everyday on various assignments to improve the lives of persons with disability. I had very similar concerns as I had when I was working at the non-profit in the US. On Facebook, I post many photos of my social life and share my challenges of living in Cameroon. I did not want my work partners to think that my social life would affect my quality of work. When they read about my down moments, I didn’t want them to wrongly think that I hate Cameroon and their culture.
Shortly after arriving in Cameroon, I learned that Peace Corps is not just a job. It’s a way of life. My work partners aren’t just people with whom I work. They are also my friends who are learning about an American’s perspective of living in Cameroon. They are also my biggest supporters, meaning that they are there for me to help me integrate into the Cameroonian life. I decided to let them be my Facebook friends. Almost all of them sent me friend requests, and I accepted all of them.
Since I gave them the access to my entire profile, they have been given a window into the life of an American living in Cameroon. They have been learning more about how an American feel about living in Cameroon. They learned that I highly value internet as I have expressed frustrations about the lack of quality of internet in Cameroon. They learned about what food people in the western world enjoy eating as I posted pictures of what I have cooked in my own home. My posts has allowed my Cameroonian friends to share their point of view of my challenges. For example, I posted a status about my conversation with a Cameroonian man on religious beliefs and how people should practice their religion. I said in the status that the Cameroonian man tried to persuade me to read the bible and believe in god while I told him that he needed to respect my belief, which was different from his own belief, and recognize that I’m from a country where we have diverse beliefs and religions. A Cameroonian friend commented under my status and explained that most Cameroonians are generally very respectful of everyone’s beliefs but it is true that people do take religion very seriously in their country. By having my Cameroonian friend comment, my friends from the US and other parts of the world were able to see insights from the people who are from the very country where I’m living. On another day, I posted a status about my learning that wheelchairs are almost nonexistence in Cameroon and wishing that we could bring in power wheelchairs made for rough terrains to Cameroon. A couple of wheelchair users from the US who were my Facebook friends shared their concerns about whether or not power wheelchairs can work in Cameroon. My Cameroonian friend who is a power wheelchair user chimed in and shared her perspective with them on how power wheelchairs can actually work in Cameroon. When I burnt the back of my leg last week by accidentally touching the gas pipe on a bike and shared the news on Facebook, my Cameroonian friends wrote “Ashia!” and thus, my friends from other parts of the world learned how Cameroonians say “I’m sorry.”
Using Facebook is an incredible way to fulfill Peace Corps’ second and third goal which is to teach each other about our own cultures. I have really found that being friends on Facebook with Host Country Nationals has far more benefits that not allowing them to see what I write on my profile page. Facebook allows my family and friends in the home country and my host community nationals connect with each other while being several thousands miles away and learn from each other.
Ruth’s shop. It’s where magic happens. On many days, you may not find me in the office of my host organization. You will instead find me on most days in the shop of my counterpart, Ruth, where I work with her to tackle many challenges in the disability community.
While Ruth is a treasurer for the Coordinating Unit of Association for Persons with Disability and President of Northwest Association of Women with Disability, she is also an entrepreneur. She owns a little shop at the Bamenda Main City Market, often also known as the “Big Market” as it’s the biggest market in Bamenda. She sells all sorts of items that would be found in a convenient store in the United States such as toothpaste, soap, sponges, milk powder, pasta, and toilet paper. In her little shop, she has two benches, each sitting on the opposite sides. Ruth often sits on one of the benches inside the shop or sometimes outside of the shop on a stool. As the market is often crowded and packed with people, people come and go in her shop throughout the day.
On many days, I sit on the bench that Ruth is not sitting on, and spend at least three to five hours talking and collaborating with her on work projects. This is what a conversation can be like on an ordinary day in her shop:
“Have you figured out how to monitor people for your malaria project?” said Ruth.
“I thought I have mentioned that in the proposal,” I said.
A woman walks in and says, “How much is the Nido milk?”
“2700,” says Ruth.
“I’ll buy it,” says the woman.
Ruth takes one of her crutches and pulls the milk powder can off the shelf with her crutch as it was sitting too high up for her to reach with her hands. She hands the milk powder can to the woman. The woman gives her the money.
“Ok. No, I mean, we still need to figure out how we are going to choose which homes we are going to visit to evaluate their hygiene and sanitation?” Ruth returns to our conversation.
“Well, I know we have said 50 to 60 people in the proposal, but I realize that is too much as it will take time away from other projects. Should we limit the number to about 25?” I said.
“Yes, about 20 to 25.”
“And we can choose people from each disability association meetings.”
“Yes, we’ll choose about 4 to 5 people from the disability association meetings.”
“And we’ll visit their homes every few months so that we can see if their behaviors have changed and also if they went back to old behaviors later on after if they changed their behavior.”
“Yes. And we won’t tell them when we will visit their homes.”
“Right, we don’t want them to get prepared by making their home clean just for us.”
In spite of distractions and noises, we get work done. We clarify our goals and guidelines for each projects.
“We need to contact Dorcas and find out when we should have a meeting on the malaria project,” I say on another day in the shop. Ruth pulls out her phone and dials Dorcas, a Community Health Educator at a university in Bamenda. A minute later, a meeting has been scheduled for the following day. We make our phone calls in the shop.
I bring print outs of my proposals for Ruth to review. I always have my calendar when I’m at her shop so that we can also plan our activities and meetings.
It’s also place where the light bulb gets turned on and so many inspirations and creativity become developed. Ruth and I both came up with the idea of integrating persons with disability into existing HIV/AIDS support groups, collaborating other volunteers in other parts of Cameroon to teach them about how to implement persons with disability into their assignments, and talk on the radio about malaria issues in the disability community.
Some men have come in the shop and asked to marry me. Some customers have sat with me to have deep discussions on colonization, cultural differences, religious beliefs. This was a great opportunity for me to work on Peace Corp’s second and third goal which is to share each other’s cultures. While one Cameroonian tried to persuade me to believe in the bible, I told him that I wished he would acknowledge that there are wide variety of beliefs and respect my and other people’s different beliefs. I then explained to him that the United States is a very diverse country where there are a variety of beliefs. Some little children have entered in just to stare at me with a tremendous curiosity. I have also learned some Pidgin with Ruth and other customers.
In the past three days, I attended a local workshop for persons with disability on advocacy. Almost all people who were present at the workshop were persons with disability from all over the Northwest region. Many of the information at the workshop were not new for me personally due to my already having so many years of experiences in disability advocacy. There was one session that had me beating my head and wondering why the topic was so necessary to present. The session was on how to form acquaintances. From my perspective, I thought this was a joke because I thought this was something that we should already know how to do since we were children. However, I then realized that most of the other attendees at the workshop were in a much more unique situation. Most of them have never been to school all their life.
When I was a year old and my parents were still figuring out how to raise me as a child with hearing loss, a group of professionals told them that my parents needed to put me in a mainstream school as soon as possible. During those days, in the 1980’s, most deaf children were placed in schools for the deaf or self-contained classrooms with other children with disability in ordinary public schools. Even for many other people with other disabilities, they were often placed in a special school or self-contained classroom too. They explained that one of the biggest challenges that people with hearing loss face is socializing with people. They struggle more in learning how to interact with human beings due to communication barriers and stigmatization from other people. So, the professionals explained that by placing me in a mainstream school as early as possible, I would have a head start in learning how to communicate and interact with the hearing peers. The other reason was also to ensure that I would be able to develop good listening and spoken language skills by being surrounded by hearing peers. My parents put me in a daycare-preschool when I was 17 months old. From that time until when I received a Master’s degree, I was in mainstream school all my life. Attending mainstream school all throughout my life has clearly served me well, especially starting it at a very young age. Forming friends and interacting with people was natural for me. I remember very well on the very first day of Kindergarten, a blonde hair girl named, Allison, sat next to me and we both clicked right away. We became best friends very quickly. I recall that I was truly an ordinary kindergartener as I had moments when I talked or giggled too much and the teacher told me on a couple occasions to sit in a “time-out” chair. I also had another best friend, named Bailey, who lived two doors from my house. Almost everyday, we visited each other’s homes and played after school and on the weekends. All throughout my schooling years, I continued to make friends with ease both in schools and neighborhood.
However, unfortunately, most Cameroonians with disability do not have this same fortunate that I have been afforded. As I have mentioned in my previous blog posts, only 2% of all Cameroonians with disability have attended school. This means that they have rarely left home to have the opportunity to interact with the world outside of their home. School was not just a place to acquire education. It was also a place to learn how to connect with other human beings. One of the primary reasons many parents send children to preschool is to have them learn how to make friends, play with other children, share toys, and communicate with other people. Teaching children how to interact with people around them starts at a very young age.
Even when there were other children around in the neighborhood, many persons with disability were still not able to interact with them. While stigmatization was one of the main reasons, there were other reasons. For deaf children, almost all of them didn’t have hearing aids or cochlear implants and so that meant that they had no aid in understanding what their neighbors were saying. Even if the deaf children knew sign language, most neighbors didn’t know sign language. For those with mobility disability, they couldn’t run and keep up with the pace of children moving quickly. For those who had no assistive devices such as crutches or wheelchairs, they couldn’t move at all. This meant that whenever the neighborhood children were gathering and interacting with each other, often times, children with mobility disability were sitting several feet away from them and far removed socialization. One of my work partners who has had a mobility disability since she was a baby told me that there were times she would be left out of the social groups and be calling out to them and asking them to help her move close to the group so that she could be part of the interactions. For those who are visually impaired, they couldn’t see where children were interacting and faced the difficulty of locating them.
So, after thinking about my childhood years and comparing them with persons with disability living in Cameroon, I realized that forming acquaintances is actually a challenge for many persons with disability in Cameroon. This is because most of them had lack of exposure to socialization. They didn’t attend school. They likely also faced the barrier of connecting with their neighbors when growing up. Their experiences further prove the importance of ensuring that all persons with disability have the access to mainstream schools and appropriate assistive devices to maximize their ability to connect with other human beings.
“…you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
– Steve Jobs
I don’t like to think that one person’s life is changed by a single person. Every person’s life is influenced by various connecting dots. When I think of connecting dots, I think of Steve Job’s commencement speech at Stanford, “How to live before you die.” He explained that there would have been no Apple if he had not taken a calligraphy course or dropped out of college or left Apple for a period of time and returned to Apple.
I like to think that my journey in growing up with hearing loss involved many connecting dots. It all began in when my parents first learned about my deafness at a hospital and met an audiologist named Barbara who whispered into my mom’s ear and said, “Go to Lea.” Shortly after my diagnosis, my grandfather connected my mother to another mother of a deaf child, Esther, who told her to visit a therapy center. The center then also recommended Lea too. My parents then eventually took me to Lea, who was a therapist to teach me how to listen and speak. Then a four-year old girl named Krista received a cochlear implant, a technology created by Graeme Clark along with Jim Patrick. This led her therapist, Judy, to tell Lea about the technology and the team at New York University, which included a surgeon and an audiologist. Just when I was still unable to use my voice and my parents were considering sign language, Lea then told my parents to go to NYU and look into the technology. At NYU, while my parents met with the surgeon, Noel, and audiologist, Bill, they also met a four year girl with a cochlear implant, Caitlin, who was speaking and hearing well. Keep in mind that this was in 1989 when the multi-channel cochlear implant had not yet been approved by the FDA for commercial use in children and thus, fewer than 200 children in the United States had the technology. My parents had to grapple with the decision as to whether or not it was worth having me be part of the clinical trial. However, seeing a child hearing and speaking in person put an end to my parents’ hesitation. A couple months later, Noel then operated on me to insert the technology into my head. Bill then activated my cochlear implant a month later. With the help of Lea and my parents, who trained me to hear and speak, I found my voice a few months later. Bill continued to program my hearing for another several years. Then when my family relocated to another city, I continued my therapy and made progress with a new therapist, Mary Ann, and also eventually with a new audiologist, Jolie. Throughout my schooling years, I continued to thrive with the support of many teachers. Each of these people and events and also an item were a dot. Without one of the dots, my life would have been altered. As I have often said, it took a village to raise me. This situation is exactly why I believe in team work and no person or event or item can single-handedly change one person’s life. Every person was a collaborator in contributing to changing my life for the better.
As a volunteer working in a community, I see myself just as one of many dots. I’m just a collaborator and team player. I’m not a leader at all. I have no right to dictate to the locals on how they should do the projects or give myself all the credit for a success of a project. Research studies have shown that when foreigners fund 100% of the projects in developing countries, the communities are not motivated to maintain the projects and collaborate with the foreigners. However, when the communities fund part of the projects, they are far more motivated to collaborate with the foreigners and maintain the projects.
My work has been so successful so far because I have the most motivated work partners who are driven to improve the quality of life for persons with disability. I was recently able to complete my Community Needs Assessment successfully because my work partners helped me find persons with disability throughout the city of Bamenda and its surrounding areas. They also accompanied me to help translate between grammar English and Pidgin. I absolutely cannot take all the credit for the success in writing my Community Needs Assessment. If one of my work partners were not involved, I likely would have struggled in completing the assignment.
My work partners and I recently successfully put up a photography exhibit at the Congress Hall in Bamenda in honor of International Women’s Day. Two of my work partners and a few other women with disability reached out to potential donors in their community to raise funds for the exhibit. Two of my work partners recruited women with disability who then recruited more women with disability to be models in the photo exhibit. While I took the photographs, one of the work partners went to the print shop to print the photos. Another work partner took the photos to the Congress Hall and hung them up. Our photo exhibit happened simply because my work partners and other women with disability took a piece of responsibility and collaborated together.
I’m currently working on a malaria project that involves in helping persons with disability become better educated about malaria. One work partner has taken the responsibility of reaching out to disability-related organizations about my giving a workshop at one of their association meetings. Another work partner is coordinating the net distribution. Another is working on creating a radio program about malaria issue in the disability community. With this project, I have made sure that my community is very heavily involved in the project. It is not only because I want to see success. It is also because as I am constantly thinking about how my work can live on in Cameroon when I return to the United States in 20 months, I believe that by having my community being involved in my projects, I am also helping them learn about how they can initiate projects on their own when I am no longer in Cameroon.