Tuesday, January 12, 2010

help dig wells for my village

Go to the following link to learn more about my current project. Donations of any size help so much, and go directly to my community. Tell your friends :)

Friday, January 1, 2010

Christmas. . . in the time of cholera

First of all, Happy Holidays! I found myself missing home a bit more this second Christmas in Cameroon, but I had fun celebrating with the other volunteers here in the Extreme North. I still managed to eat lots of cookies and watch A Christmas Story, though it’s not quite the same as watching it during the 24 hour TV marathon. Also, it magically got cold enough to use a blanket at night. A Christmas miracle.

A month before that on Thanksgiving, as I felt myself drift into a food coma, I thought happily that I had a lot to be thankful for this year. First of all, because despite living in the Sahel Desert, we volunteers pulled together a very traditional thanksgiving meal including mashed potatoes, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. We couldn’t track down a turkey, but the chicken we ate was delicious, and I could swear it contained some tryptophan. Secondly, I’ve been able to do some really interesting work lately, thanks to a recent cholera epidemic. I mean, I’m not particularly thankful for the cholera itself, just that the CDC came here and I got to help them do research. I’ll explain.

Two medical epidemiologists with CDC (Center for Disease Control) came to Cameroon to investigate a recent outbreak of cholera going on in the northern part of the country, where I live. They came to find out why it appears that many more people are dying of cholera than should, even in a developing country. During this epidemic, the mortality rate is about 13%, while the World Health Organization acceptable mortality rate for cholera is <1%.

The epidemiologists came to do two studies: one interviewing the families affected by cholera and one interviewing personnel at health centers. My role was to give a questionnaire to nurses that treated cholera cases to find out if they were aware of how to properly treat cholera patients and had enough supplies to do so. I also served as a kind of language/culture guide throughout the study. It was really interesting work, and a great way to see some very remote parts of the Extreme North. The CDC is still analyzing the data, but we observed that the main reasons the mortality rate was so high was that the health personnel weren’t counting the mild cases of cholera, and that people with severe cases weren’t getting to the hospital soon enough because of the cost or difficulty of traveling to the health center.

My other recent adventure/project was a bike tour around the province. For about two weeks, I and my two fellow Minnesotans took on the Mandara Mountains, stopping in villages to teach people about nutrition and how to make tofu. Protein-calorie malnutrition is a big problem in this area, so teaching people how to grow and prepare soybeans, a cheap high-protein food, can make a positive impact on the health of communities. Most of the time, we pedaled pleasantly on beautiful mountain roads. However, there was one time that the road (dirt track) disappeared and we had to ask a man working in his fields to show us the way to the (real) road. He very kindly did that, even though we had to bushwhack our bikes down a mountain for three hours, inundating our bodies with prickers. We took it easy the next day.

I spent quite a bit of time away from Kolofata doing those two projects, but in December I came back to my village and completed my first funded project. With the help of a PEPFAR grant, I held a two-day HIV/AIDS Training of Peer Educators. I invited twenty people from Kolofata and the surrounding villages who have been involved in past public health campaigns to learn more about HIV/AIDS and how to teach people in their communities about it. The group was very diverse and dynamic, and it was a very hands-on training. To give you a mental picture, just imagine me holding a wooden penis in front a robed village chief as he tries to unroll a condom. Overall it was a success, much thanks to the help of my super-volunteer friend Brad.

As for village life, all is well. My new thing is bringing popcorn and movies to my counterpart’s house. We add the spicy “piment” powder to the popcorn to make it an American snack with a Cameroonian kick. Dreamgirls was a hit with her family, though a little risqué. If you have any old Disney movies you want to send over, I promise they’ll be put to good use. Miss you all!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A year in

Rainy season has come and gone, and I think I’m going to miss it. It made little things like crossing the riverbed such an adventure. It brought me the fruits of my gardening labor, five cucumbers and two cantaloupes. It also brought me a touch of malaria. I’ve still got some things to look forward to, though. I’m getting trained to be a prenatal consultant at the hospital and I’m working on a couple different grants, one to dig wells and another to train peer educators in HIV/AIDS prevention. Also, I’ve started weighing babies regularly at the hospital and so far have only been peed on once.

I’ve been in this country a year now, but I’m still always learning. Here are a couple examples . . .

My counterpart Falta is without a doubt my best friend in Kolofata. I have spent far more time with her and her family than anyone else in my village, so it’s funny how we still learn things about each other all the time. The other day, I was sitting on a mat with her daughters, when little Yanama took my glasses off. I said something like “Ah, I can’t see!”, which would seem like a normal enough response, but this threw Falta through a loop. She’s said “Hold up, you wear those so you can see?” I tried to explain that I can only see about as far as my arm can stretch and tried to show with a bizarre hand gesture what “blurry” looks like because I don’t know the word “blurry” in French. She thought I’d been wearing my oddly shaped magnifying glass-like specs for fashion purposes. Then she asked if that’s why so many of the other volunteers wear glasses too. I was so surprised at first, but Falta was making complete sense. The hospital in Kolofata is one of three in this half of the country with ophthalmologists, and people come here and pay lots of money for surgery for blinding diseases like trachoma, not for silly reasons like “I can’t read the blackboard.” But now I really wonder how many kids can’t read the blackboard. Ah, cultural exchange.

Last week, I heard a man walking on my roof . It was early in the afternoon when I hide from the heat and sit in front of my fan. I stepped into the blinding light, confused and really hoping he wasn’t a Nigerian bandit. It turned out to be my neighbor, and he kept repeating the same phrase to try to explain what he was doing “C’est un varang.” “It’s a what?” He then jumped down from my roof and into my yard holding what looked like a baby komodo dragon. A varang is a giant lizard that lives in the bush (and apparently is quite tasty). So it’s ok my neighbor climbed onto my roof because my scrappy little dog McLovin would have tried to take on the varang, but wouldn’t have stood a chance against it.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

adjusting again

My trip to Europe was a whirlwind of museums, churches, and beautiful cities. I was on the go so much I barely had time to process the dramatic change of environment. Eating cheese and vegetables and smoked salmon at every possible opportunity probably helped with the adjustment. I appreciated a few things I probably didn’t before coming to Cameroon- a waste disposal system, paved roads with stoplights, and being able to blend in. I was a bit worried about the transition from the developed back to the developing world, but going away for awhile actually helped me realize that I’m in love with this little village of mine. I was very anxious to get back to Kolofata, and I felt very excited and refreshed stepping off the plane.

Once I made it to Kolofata, however, I found I had to re-learn a few things. First, coming to northern Cameroon, even just after vacation, means you have to go through a chronic explosive diarrhea phase. Secondly, weather affects your plans. I’m experiencing my first rainy season right now. When it rains, the roads get washed out and become impassable for at least a few hours. My counterpart was out in a small village giving vaccinations and her motorcycle fell in the road/temporary river. Shortly after, she got very sick with pneumonia and malaria. She’s better now, but we haven’t been able to do much work together. Also, the electricity and running water generally go out when it rains.

After being back a month, I finally feel like both me and my bowels can handle another year and a half here. I planted a garden in my yard, started teaching gymnastics to young girls at the women’s center, and giving weekly nutrition presentations at the hospital. Rainy season is also malnutrition season here, because most of the money people make after the millet harvest is used up, people are working in the fields a lot, and it is hard to transport food. I’m trying to promote the use of a local tree called moringa which has very nutritious leaves (and tastes kinda like spinach). Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be planting a lot of trees.

I’ve also acquired a couple roommates, medical students from England who will be at the hospital in Kolofata for six weeks, who have been great fun so far. We climbed a mountain a few days ago, and as we were walking through the fields back to my house you could look to one side and see a full rainbow between two mountains and then look to the other side and see a beautiful orange sunset over the savannah. It really is an amazing place to live, even when the electricity doesn‘t work.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

After three months at post with , I feel like I can finally say I'm getting into the swing of things. I started taking Kanuri lessons with my counterpart, Falta. Each night, I go over to her house, sit down on a mat with her and her two little girls (who are without a doubt, the two most adorable children in town) and I point to things and ask what the word is in Kanuri. I write a couple pages of words and phrases down in my notebook each night, and little by little, I'm learning. Although I still don't understand the structure of the language, I'm amusing people in town with my attempts to extend the greetings to the next level of "How's the dust?", "How's the house," and "How's the neighborhood?" I'm also getting used to teaching English, and I'll find out how the kids are doing next week after I give my first test.

Between English classes, Kanuri lessons, and spending time at the hospital, my days are full. I've been going on the morning rounds at the hospital, which gives me a chance to see all the patients. I've seen some really interesting patients, like a baby with a cleft palate, a man with a poisonous snake bite, and some burn victims from gas truck explosion. I also saw a childbirth last week, which was amazing and miraculous and incredibly gross at the same time. I started helping to give HIV tests during prenatal consultations, basically just pricking fingers. I think if I keep observing at the hospital, I'm going to get the chance to learn a lot. I've got my In-Service Training coming up in a week, so I'll get some good internet time and write more then. A bientot!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Since my last blog, I finished up the trachoma campaign, took a few days to nurse my body and bike tires, and started trying to get a handle on the health situation in Kolofata. I'm the first volunteer in the health program in my village, so assessment is really important. First I met with some different groups of people- the hospital staff, a women's group, and high school students, to discuss the problems and needs of the community. My next step is to go door to door with a survey, which should really help me get to know people in the village better, but I'm pretty nervous to do it alone!

I've been able to experience some festivals lately, both the Fete de Jeunesse (Youth Day) and the "jour d'amour" (Valentine's Day, sounds so much better in french). The Fete de Jeunesse on the 11th of February is a huge holiday here, with a parade, talent shows, soccer match, and a women's handball game. The talent shows are essentially lipsinking expositions in which members of the audience come to the stage and put money in the performers pockets. In the parade, each school in the district makes up their own song and marches across the soccer field singing it. The highlight of the parade was when the majorettes from a high school did their routine to Aqua's "Barbie Girl." What a funny place this is.

Something I've struggled with is not having anything like a regular schedule and finding myself with a lot of free time and limited entertainment options. There are two bars in town, my favorite of the two is where lots of children come to follow french-dubbed spanish soap operas and occasionally plays 90s toni braxton music videos. I've read twelve books and discovered a whole new world of entertainment with a shortwave radio. BBC news is fantasic, although the lengthy sports news segments mean that I will come home with far more knowledge of European club soccer than i ever wanted. I will never get sick of listening to cricket matches, however, because i will never be able to understand the game nor lose the humor in hearing "snoggelfarts is up 370 to 2 at the wicket between fourth snack and tea time." Other fun channels provide Chinese news in English, Japonese news in French, and a call in show called "Wake Up with the Bishop."

After a few weeks of a very open schedule, I started to feel a little restless and jumped into a few activities and now I'm thinking "What I've gotten myself into!". The high school hasn't had an English teacher for a few months, so I offered to help out with a class or two. So they gave me eleven hours of teaching English (ahhh). My first week of teaching was pretty intimidating, with about fifty students in each class, many of whom do not have books, paper, or pencils. I'm going to keep trying it out, but feeling a little conflicted that it will take time away from health work I should be doing. I also have a once-a-week health class that I will be teaching at the women's center and I'm pretty excited to start. Lastly, I'm finishing up a project that the volunteer before me started with the US Embassy. She got a grant to build a primary school in a small village close by. The school is built, but my job is to finish up with the buying of desks and inauguration of the school. Wish me luck!!!