Field Transitions

Now is as good a time as any to officially announce that I will be staying an additional eight months in Cameroon! As my training group prepares to return to the states, I have decided to pursue a project that will bring me home in June 2018. After two years full of trial and error, and so much gained knowledge, I am excited to have the opportunity to implement work with more information and confidence than I had twenty-seven months ago. As a result, I will be scaling up some projects I started this past year and moving to the supervisory department of the local health system.

One reason for the extension is that the health district is transitioning to a new funding system, implemented by the World Bank, referred to as “performance-based financing.” This change is exciting because it increases community participation in ensuring that the local health centers provide quality care. It is also a lot of work, and a great opportunity for a Peace Corps volunteer to engage with the population. I have noticed that during the transition, many community members are confused by what’s required of them for PBF to work, and some providers are overly focused on bringing in more patients simply to increase revenue. There are many technical details about how PBF should work, but not much guidance on how to carry out these tasks in sustainable, community-focused ways. For example, house visits are an important component of this new system, and a perfect opportunity to improve links between the health center and the community while sharing important public health advice. There has been very little training for health providers and mobilizers on how to conduct successful house visits and truly improve utilization of preventive health practices. As a result, house visits are disorganized, their messages are not clear, and it is difficult to measure achievements towards behavior change. While reporting on house visits is detail-oriented, providers spend more time filling out the paperwork than paying attention to their hosts.
 I have seen all of this happening, and am excited to have the chance to attempt to address these habits to improve house visits. In my new role, I will be reimplementing a mini-course on health mobilizing that I led in Danfili, at two additional health centers. The health centers we chose are ones that are considered a little “too” rural for a full-time Peace Corps volunteer, but could most benefit from this training program. We will talk about behavior change tactics during house visits, and reinforce participants’ knowledge on malaria prevention, malnutrition and hygiene, the vaccination calendar, prenatal consultations and family planning, and HIV destigmatization. I am really excited for this opportunity because one of the struggles I had during the initial course was providing “motivation” to participants in conducting house visits to reinforce what they’d learned. This new system, however, encourages and rewards the work and time necessary for conducting quality house visits. Suddenly, health center staff and volunteers are expected to spend time applying the lessons they learned during the course we conducted, and are well equipped to do so in a high-quality manner.
I started (quietly) fundraising for this project while it was Danfili-based, but with my extension, I wanted to make a few changes to include more aspects of my work during the next year.
The biggest change to this project is that in addition to the mobilizer training course, I will be working with a group of teen peer educators. This should come as no surprise to those who know me well, as adolescent health and sex ed are my bread and butter. While I focused more time during my first two years in other health areas, I attended several workshops on engaging men and boys in gender activities, and the importance of focusing on youth for HIV prevention. Looking for an opportunity to do more work with youth, I reached out to a counterpart of mine who was a peer educator and works in family planning outreach. We started some productive conversations about how we can work with the youth in Ngaoundal (a much larger town than Danfili), and this is our result. We recruited a few students from each of the secondary schools in Ngaoundal, and are calling the group the “health ambassadors” of Ngaoundal. Over the course of the school year, we will discuss many topics, including gender roles, HIV prevention and destigmatization, reproductive and sexual health, gender empowerment, healthy relationships, and other topics. These peer educators will plan outreach activities for Youth Day on February 11th, and will be given the chance to lead health talks in the second half of the school year. As former peer educators, this project is really exciting for me and my work partner. We are having so much fun getting to know the group and making our meetings interesting, participative, and unique.
 As I mentioned above, I am fundraising to offset costs for implementing these projects. In order to implement this work, I have budgeted money for traveling to the health centers from Ngaoundal, feeding participants during the training sessions, and providing visual aids to assist them with their house visits. For the peer educator group, I have budgeted costs for training materials, snacks for meetings, and school health presentations.
Normally, I would cover these costs on my own, but it is starting to add up, and I could use your help. I have connected with certain community leaders who are helping greatly with certain costs, but it only covers about half of the project. Luckily, a little goes a long way! For $20 you can fund the costs of one peer educator meeting, the materials needed for one health mobilizer training, or the printing costs of 20 health mobilizer manuals. Please consider donating to these two projects to help fund my work. The link to the donation page is on the Peace Corps Donation website, and the sooner this project gets funded, the sooner I can start! I am hoping to fundraise the remaining $1300 before the end of October, so I can begin these projects when I move to Ngaoundal in November. I am happy to answer any questions, and look forward to keeping you updated on the progress of these activities over the course of the year! As always, thank you for following my blog, and cheers to eight more months of posts from a corner of Cameroon.
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Fête de Mouton 

Just last week, Danfili celebrated Eid al-Adha. This Islamic religious holiday is also known as the feasting celebration. It honors Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God at his demand. Just beforehand, God produced a sheep which they sacrificed instead. In honor of that, 40 days after the end of Ramadan, sheep and other livestock are slaughtered and shared with others. This holiday also marks the end of the annual hajj to Mecca. The holiday values gift-giving and sharing. If an animal is butchered, it is shared with neighbors, family, and other community members. Children receive small gifts and new clothing, which they parade around in as celebration. 

After spending several weeks away, I was happy to return in time to view the activities. In Danfili, this holiday is definitely all for the kids. My counterpart’s children spent the whole week beaming, as they showed off their new outfits, visited one another, and posed for photo shoots. One of her sons coordinated with his buddies to have a fancy “banquet,” and each contributed a little money to the cause. I spent an afternoon with her in her kitchen as we cooked spaghetti, scrambled eggs, sheep meat, and spicy chai tea. Her little boy and his friends showed up early (!) in their best clothes, and Saidou asked them eagerly if they had, “prepared their tongues,” for the forthcoming deliciousness. I died. 

Here are a few photos of Asta’s kids as well as Da’a’s sheep preparations. Eid Mubarak! 

Women’s Day

Here’s an overdue blog post… Enjoy!
International Women’s Day represents a global commitment to improving gender equality, and is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of women around the world. Because last year I was traveling March 8th, I didn’t get a good sense of how the day is recognized in Cameroon, and was excited to be involved with organizing the holiday with the Danfili community. During the planning stages and throughout the holiday, I saw women gather to discuss ideas and plan for a week’s worth of activities. Danfili is more traditionally male-dominated, so women’s day preparations provided a neat opportunity to see women’s empowerment at work.

Preparations for March 8th began in early February with a community meeting, where we discussed the activities to plan and started collecting money to cover costs. The group chose a lead organizer, and agreed to have a talent show, soccer match, market day exposition, parade, and cocktail party during the week of March 8th. We also scheduled weekly meetings to train for the soccer match and prepare our talent show acts.

In the following weeks, I attended a few meetings and soccer practices to support the efforts of the women organizing the events, but was discouraged that many times these meetings devolved into complaining about why more women weren’t attending, lack of funding, and endemic tardiness. These are not new themes; many conversations at the health center and at schools touch on these same frustrations. I even encounter these in my work. The truth is, Danfilians tend to prioritize their private lives  and are more interested in community-wide activities that require minimal personal investment. At the same time, Danfilians also value protocol and formal presentations. In my observations, Women’s Day became a Catch-22; the planners began to feel pressured to have a professional, organized holiday, but had little help in realizing the activities. These motivated community members often felt unsupported and that the community didn’t particularly want to celebrate the nationally recognized holiday, but knew it would be expected of them.

 

The week of Women’s Day, spirits were high, and more women came together to help plan and participate in activities. On market day, women prepared various foods that we sold into the afternoon, including hibiscus juice, beignets, couscous with beef and tomato sauce, meatballs, braised fish, and my own addition-banana bread! Later in the week, we held foot races, prepared for our talent show, and organized the menu for our cocktail party. During the talent show, women mostly lip-synced and danced to their favorite songs, but we also had a few skits about the importance of sending women to school, the comedic side of polygamy, being clever and patient while surrounded by “villagers,” and inter-generational wisdom. At the very end, we had a “fashion show,” and we all showed off our finest outfits for the night. Apparently people were impressed with my catwalk, and declared me the winner!

Women’s Day itself was a very busy day. All of the women in Danfili were invited to join us for a parade through town, which ended at the chief’s palace. Twenty showed up, so we formed two ranks and set out with our Cameroonian flag. While marching, we sang a song about singing and marching to celebrate women in Cameroon. In front of the chief, we sang a Gbaya song and then select women shared a few words about the importance of women’s day before we all continued on to the pastor’s house to start preparing food for the cocktail party.

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In front of the chief’s palace in our matching pagne dresses

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Women’s Day food preparations: croquettes (essentially deep-fried sugar cookie dough), plantain chips, hard-boiled eggs, popcorn, shrimp crackers, beef skewers, and sugared peanuts. We used more than six liters of oil!

Each year there is a specific fabric that the First Lady of Cameroon selects as the uniform pagne that women then use to make outfits for the holiday. This is a common tradition for other holidays, political parties, and even weddings. This year’s pagne was sponsored by He For She, which you may remember hearing about as Emma Watson’s NGO to promote gender equality. When Emma Watson first announced her He For She initiative, I was in college and immersed in my ideas of feminism, gender equality, and surrounded by people who generally agreed with my views. I found it difficult then, to know that the pagne was sponsored by an organization driven to increase capacity for women’s equality, when observing and interacting with men about Women’s Day. womens day pagneBy that I mean to say that I was disappointed by the lack of participation in the activities that women spent so long to prepare. The talent show audience was mostly youth, and many of the men who were there at the start did not stay until the end. During the parade, many husbands came out to see the parade pass by, and their wives stood behind them, watching in the doorway. During the cocktail party, the male invitees were the first ones served and acted very childish and greedy about the whole affair. While walking through town, many of the men I encountered asked me where their gifts were, because to them women’s day isn’t about treating women special, its about women advocating for themselves by giving out gifts and continuing their traditional roles as providers for others’ enjoyment. Ugh, there’s a long way to go. I had to reframe how I view feminism and the messages of HeforShe to meet Danfili where they are at in terms of considering women’s gender equality. This was the first year that Danfili even celebrated the holiday, in at least two years. The women who are used to leadership positions (teachers, nurses, the wives of pastors and teachers), were fearless in leading the charge and motivating their peers to step it up and contribute to making the holiday their own. They were giddy with how positive the week went, though it was not without its hiccups and frustrations. The thing that I found most inspiring was watching how the children and young women, especially, received the activities. They were eager to play in the soccer game, to see the talent show acts, and be a part of the other activities. Seeing their mothers plan the first women’s day will hopefully encourage them to push boundaries a little more and take a more active role in women’s day as they get older. With them we will see real gender equality progress, I’m sure of it!

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Baby Phoebe, Habiba, and me in our matching dresses