Last October, I did a Nutrition Workshop for a small group of persons with disabilities. When doing workshops on various health topics, I normally give each workshop more than once so that I can reach out to as many people as possible. However, for this workshop, I did it only once because the workshop produced unsatisfying results that led me to decide not to give anymore workshops until if I could come up with a solution that can produce better results.
Nutrition was a very complicated topic to educate. The goal of the workshop was to improve participants’ knowledge of how to eat good well-balanced and healthy meals. When I did my community needs assessment a year ago, I found that about two-thirds of all people who I interviewed do not eat well-balanced diet regularly. This means that the majority rarely or never eat vitamins and minerals which includes fruits and vegetables and many also rarely eat proteins such as meat, fish, beans or dairy. Everyone reported that they always eat carbohydrates, which is the primary staple of their diet. Carbohydrates include yam, potatoes, plantains, cassava, spaghetti and bread. Financial reasons is one of many factors as meat is often unaffordable for many persons with disabilities who are unemployed or struggle to earn money. Access to food is another reason. Many persons with disabilities in particular those with mobility and visual issues cannot go far due to the distance from their home to the market being too far. Many taxi drivers will not take persons with disabilities because they do not want to make the effort to assist them in getting into the car. Also, many markets are inaccessible to those who are in wheelchairs due to narrow aisles. Also, most of those who are deaf cannot communicate with the vendors to negotiate the prices. Another main reason is also because of lack of knowledge. For example, in Bamenda, bananas, mangoes, avocados, onions and tomatoes are plentiful but for some persons with disabilities who have the ability to go to the market or have family members who go to the market for them, fruits and vegetables are just still not part of their regular diet.
At the workshop, I educated the participants on the importance of eating well-balanced diet meals and eating food from all three categories: carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins and minerals. I presented the “Food House” which is similar to the food pyramid. I explained to them how each type of nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins and minerals impact our body. I explained what happens to our body when we eat or do not eat food from each type of nutrients. I shared various diseases that we can develop as a result of not eating food from one or more of the categories We did a hands on demonstration where I presented cut outs of various food and asked the participants to place each food in each category on the poster of “Food House.”
When doing the demonstration, the participants exhibited struggles in being able to identify how each food impacts our body. Then when they did the post-test, while they were able to define correctly each different types of food, carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins and minerals, they were not able to correctly identify which food belongs to which category. Also, none of them except for one correctly responded that they must eat food from all three categories in order to maintain a well-balanced diet.
Because the post-tests showed no improvements from the pre-tests and participants exhibited struggles in understanding the information, I decided that it is best not to move forward in giving more nutrition workshops to other groups until I can figure out how I can improve in educating people about nutrition and figure out the best approach in helping them understand the information. I realize that using complex vocabulary terms and scientific information to a group of people who have received little to no schooling is challenging. Thus, I need to figure out how I can help them understand the necessary complex information.
When I was on the plane heading to Cameroon from Brussels for the very first time last September 2014, I was sitting next to a very quiet woman who was also a soon-to-be Peace Corps Volunteer. I was exhausted and so, I selfishly didn’t take a moment to converse with her to get to know her better. I left the seat probably after an hour the flight took off and moved to a row that had several empty seats so that I could stretch out and sleep.
Throughout the training, I continued not to get to know the woman too well. I will admit that I was probably a little clique-ish as I spent most of my training only with a few select volunteers. This woman exhibited tremendous struggles in adapting to the life in Cameroon while I was immersing so easily. I recall during the first week when I was sitting next to her in training and she said, “I’m not feeling good. My stomach hurts.” She often expressed complaints about living in Cameroon. At one point in training she said, “Life is so much worse here than I thought.” She was often quiet throughout training especially during discussions. She showed struggles in understanding French. There were rumors that she said that she was considering going back to the US. I should note that I witnessed a lovely handsome man taking the time to console her and persuading her to stay in Cameroon. I remember clearly thinking and even saying to some volunteers that she would probably most likely be the first to early terminate. I really didn’t think she would be able to go through the entire service. I judged her harshly.
Then, after we swore in and moved to our posts, I remained in contact with her by simply being Facebook friends. I followed her Facebook status updates via my Facebook newsfeed and looked at photos of her life at post. Photos showed her smiling and looking as if she was well integrated into her post. There were also images of teenage boys in her home and vaccine campaigns.
Then at In-Service Training, where all of us, volunteers who trained together, reconnected, I took the opportunity to get to know her more. I told her that I have been really impressed with how far she has come and the work she is doing. At that time, I learned from the same lovely handsome man who happens to be Alex that he one day found her upset during the first week in Cameroon. She admitted to him at that time that it was her very first time outside of the United States. I was speechless. I had always thought having experiences traveling abroad was a requirement to join the Peace Corps although I did learn a few weeks before then that was not the case as another volunteer with whom I’ve become very close friends also have never left the US until joining the Peace Corps. She taught me that having experiences in traveling abroad is truly not a requirement to serve in the Peace Corps and it’s not even a requirement to succeed in the service. She taught me that I need to give people chances when I think that they may not make through the service because everyone adapts differently to a new environment. While some people may integrate successfully right away, some can be slow in adapting, and there should be nothing wrong with that because they can eventually become one of the very best volunteers.
This volunteer, Jasmine, is posted in a village in Adamawa, and has been doing the most beautiful work. She is one of the very best volunteers I know. She regularly invites young teenage boys to her home. While feeding them, she converses with them about life in Cameroon. She educates them to be the best male partners and empowered to advocate with girls to improve gender equality. She teaches family planning, HIV prevention, malaria prevention and nutrition at the schools in her village. She is working with a disability organization in the nearby capital to educate persons with disabilities on various health topics.
I eventually learned that she grew up in poverty. She also taught me that traveling abroad is not the only way to present experiences in adapting to different environments and being resilient. If I were screening applicants and deciding who to accept for Peace Corps, I now know that there are different kinds of experiences that would allow applicants to successfully integrate into the communities in a strange land away from home.
When I look back on Pre-Service Training, I wish I had lend a hand to her and been more supportive in helping her integrate in Cameroon and never judged her for being slow to integrating in Cameroon. In the meantime, we have become very close friends and we provide each other support on regular basis through texting on our phones and conversing on Facebook.
To soon-to-be volunteers who are about to start their service and are reading this blog, when you see a trainee in your group struggling, take the time to reach out to the person and help the person push forward and thrive instead of being judgemental. Every person deserves an equal chance to succeed.
When I first arrived in Cameroon and I was living with a host family, all family members had a phone that could only make and receive calls and send and receive texts. When I revisited them one year later, every one of them had a smartphone. My host father had joined Facebook. They were all using Whatsapp. The internet has really come a long way since I have arrived in this country.
Regular readers may recall that I really struggled to get internet access when I first arrived in the country. My options were limited. Only one phone company offered 3G speed, Nexttel. Other companies which include Orange, MTN and Camtel offered only DSL speed or slower. I could choose a plan with 3G speed but with limited data for a very expensive price or a plan with 100 hours of internet a month at a reasonable price but with very slow speed that was close to dial up. It was so slow that I couldn’t download files and load many of the pictures online. I often had to wait at least a minute or two for a page to load. I used the 100 hours a month plan from Camtel for the most of my first year in Cameroon. Then about six months ago, the one internet company that was once the only company offering 3G speed, Nexttel, dropped their price by half. I purchased their plan but used it only when Facetiming with family and friends as the price was still relatively high for limited amount of data. I still used the 100 hours a month plan at other times. All three other phone companies rolled out plans with 3G speed. Then about four months ago, Nexttel began to offer a plan with unlimited 2G speed at a price that is cheaper than the 100 hours a month plan from Camtel. Since then, I have only been using the unlimited 2G speed plan. I am also able to purchase credit for certain amount of data for 3G speed when I want to use Facetime or watch a video.
This past month, two phone companies, Orange and MTN, just rolled out 4G network. I hope this means that eventually a plan with unlimited 3G data will be rolled out soon. I have noticed over the past couple months that more and more Cameroonians have a smartphone since the price of internet has become more affordable. My counterpart purchased a smartphone for the first time a few months ago and has been using Facebook more frequently. I will be interested to see how the internet continues to improve and transform the country in the next nine months (I finish my service in October or November.)
On Christmas Day this past December, I was at Hilda’s house and Hilda and I were conversing various topics ranging from current issues to everyday cultural differences to travel plans. When I shared my travel plans to Kribi, one of the beaches in Cameroon, with Alex, I shared that there is a limited number of resorts by the beaches. Hilda explained to me that going to the beach as a vacation is a western culture. Most Cameroonians do not go to the beach as a vacation for various reasons. When they are on vacation, they normally choose to visit their families. Money is another big reason many Cameroonians do not go. I told her that I didn’t realize that vacationing at a beach is a western culture but I could see her point because in the US and Europe during the summer months and holidays when the weather is warm, many beaches are often crowded and traffic heading towards the beach can often be horrendous.
Alex and I took a four and half hour bus to Kribi from Yaounde. While the bus was booked solid, there was no traffic going to the beach.
When Alex and I went to Kribi, I definitely noticed that very few Cameroonians were at the beach. Majority of the people at the beach were clearly foreigners. I will admit that I wanted to walk up to many of the people and interview them and find out what brought them to Cameroon. The beach was not crowded even though it was during New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. It was actually rather quiet. This shows what Hilda has explained to me – Cameroonians generally do not spend the holidays at the beaches unlike many from the western countries.
Kribi is a lovely beach with light brown sand and warm ocean water. However, the landscape looks very developing. The buildings in the town center are shacks. They look like poorly constructed buildings that are found all throughout the country. Kribi does have one unique feature that is rarely found at beaches and that is waterfalls flowing right into the ocean. It was a surreal and beautiful scenery. Alex and I spent about an hour admiring the beautiful scene.
As we also celebrated New Year’s Day at the beach, we enjoyed a big dinner that included salad, shrimp and pork. Shrimp is a speciality of Cameroon, especially since the country’s name was named after a river with shrimp. When the clock hit midnight, the hotel lit the fire on the beach and people danced around the bonfire and played music. Many people including Alex and I launched sky lanterns into the sky. It was a beautiful New Year celebration, and it was wonderful to experience in seeing how it is celebrated in another country.
As I have discussed in previous blog posts, access to HIV education and services is a prominent issue in the disability community. To help increase the willingness of persons with disabilities to talk openly and knowledgeably about HIV/AIDS in their groups, families and communities so that they can help each other prevent HIV/AIDS, I gave presentations on HIV Prevention to three disability groups last month.
I administered pre- and post-tests. The goal of administering the tests was to identify their understanding of HIV transmission and whether or not they believe in certain myths. Thirty-four participants completed the pre- and post-tests. 27 scored 78% or higher on the post-test. I’d like to note that five scored very poorly on the pre-test, scoring between 11 and 44%. On the post-test, they achieved 78% or higher.
While participants did demonstrate, both on the tests and during discussions, a good understanding of the fact that HIV is caused by sexual intercourse with HIV infected partners, sharing needles with HIV infected people and receiving blood transfusion with HIV infection, many still believed in some misconceptions. About one-third (11) still believe that one can become infected by hugging and also about one-third (10) still believe that one can become infected by sharing clothes.
I have also found both on the tests and in discussions that many were not aware that breastfeeding can cause the transmission of HIV from mother to children and also during labor too. For instance, when I asked at each presentation what are the causes of HIV, I always heard, “sexual intercourse,” “sharing needles,” and “blood transfusion.” But breastfeeding and pregnancy labor was often left out. One woman although at one group did mention breastfeeding. Participants have also mentioned sharing razors and hair shavers as a cause but I had to clarify that HIV is transmitted only if there is blood on the razors or shavers and the blood comes in contact with a cut on the body. One participant also mentioned accidents such as if one’s wound comes in contact with the wound of an HIV infected person.
Therefore, I will work on re-educating that HIV is NOT spread through sharing clothing or hugging at upcoming sexual reproductive health workshops which will be given to the same disability groups. I also plan on giving the HIV Prevention presentations to at least two more disability groups and will try to articulate better that HIV is not transmitted through sharing clothes or hugging.