2011 Year in Review
In early December, I celebrated a one-year milestone as both a Peace Corps volunteer and as Technical and M&E Adviser for Education Fights AIDS International (EFA) in Cameroon. Reaching such a milestone seems to necessitate reflection, to recall what you have accomplished and to reflect on the differences you are making and the changes you see both in others and in yourself. In short, 2011 has been a whirlwind of activity for EFA in Cameroon. More importantly, we have made real differences in the lives of countless youth infected and/or affected by HIV and AIDS. Finally, while apologizing for being cliché, it has been a life-changing experience for me as well.
As part of the EFA family, I invite you to join me as I share a few of the highlights of my past year with EFA and our Youth Empowerment Network members in Cameroon. After all, it is your continued support that makes all that we do possible.
Preventing Violence and Promoting Equality
“The education on sexual and gender-based violence started with me first; I really had no idea about these issues before and how they could really change our lives.”—YEN member
My first project with EFA in Cameroon was in collaboration with TrustAfrica and it was divided into three main parts:
- Design and implement in 10 communities a survey on knowledge/attitudes/practices related to sexual and gender-based violence (SGB-V).
- Design and lead training on the prevention of SGB-V for our network of 50 Peer Educators.
- Educate communities on SGB-V prevention.
Gender, violence, and equality are not the easiest topics to discuss in Cameroon, and being new EFA and to the country, it was even more challenging. However, the rewards of this project far outweigh any personal challenges. I know that for most of our Peer Educators this was the first time they had ever talked openly about SGB-V and equality. Many women didn’t consider themselves equal; many thought that men were in fact born more intelligent and therefore had more rights and should be given more opportunities. We discussed ideas about gender roles and decision-making in the household, about communication between partners, and about how violence fuels the HIV epidemic. Each Peer Educator talked about strategies that they could implement in their own household to promote equality and about strategies that they could employ as peer educators in promoting SGB-V prevention and equality in their communities.
Our Peer Educators were so moved by the knowledge they gained in the training that they educated more than 8,000 community members in just one month—which was 3,000 more than projected!
Fighting HIV/AIDS in Local Communities
One of EFA’s founding values is to promote positive prevention and the engagement of HIV-positive individuals in the fights against HIV/AIDS. We do this through many avenues, but primarily through small employment and volunteer opportunities. We train members as peer educators and encourage their work as volunteer educators both in their communities and in others. Our Peer Educators are amazing resources for the communities we serve and for new communities who would like to improve or establish their own HIV prevention, care, or support activities. This past year I facilitated two important collaboration projects.
The first was in Hina, a conservative and rural village in the Far North region. The Peace Corps volunteer in Hina organized a summer long football (soccer!) tournament, which interweaved HIV education before each game. For the closing ceremonies, an HIV-positive, female EFA peer educator delivered the closing speech. The volunteer later told me:
“It was amazing! In a village where no one would even utter the letters HIV, everyone was talking about how an HIV-positive WOMAN was openly talking about HIV, how strong and healthy she was, and that maybe you CAN live a healthy and full life with HIV.”
The second was in Adoumri, a rural village in the North region. There a Peace Corps volunteer led a PEPFAR funded project to train the nurses and healthcare workers at her health center in Pre and Post-test HIV Counseling, to educate members of the community on HIV prevention, and to offer free, voluntary HIV testing for 2 days at their health center. I worked with three of our EFA Peer Educators that work at the Maroua Center for Voluntary HIV Testing to design and implement a half day training for the project. We recruited 20 EFA Peer Educators to volunteer their time to spend day of educating the community on prevention and the importance of knowing your status. Thanks to our activities over 2,000 people were reached by education messages and 800 people were tested for HIV! In 2012, we hope to continue our work in Adoumri and help the volunteer start an association of people living with HIV to provide much needed care and support services.
Empowering and Skill-Building for a Successful Future
One day EFA staffers Alim, Amada, and I were discussing how great it would be if we had a computer that our members could use; unfortunately we didn’t have money in the budget for such a purpose. My birthday was quickly approaching and on a whim I sent out a request to friends and family, asking them to donate on my behalf, to a computer fund. Two weeks later, my friends and family had more than tripled my request. What would be the best use of these funds?
We discussed the possibility of providing access to computer-based training and education in language, literacy, math, business, and communication and information technologies. How this training and education for HIV+ youth would build confidence, increase employable skills, and create new opportunities for communication, outreach and advocacy. Education and training for the orphans and vulnerable children of HIV+ youth in our network would help them to succeed in school and encourage them to continue with their education. The Youth Empowerment Center was born.
Currently, the center is in its infancy. We used the money to build a small room, which houses our two computers. Members and their families can use these computers, which have internet access, at their convenience. In 2012, we plan on holding computer-skills training workshops in areas such as Computer Basics, Word, Excel, and Internet, Communication and Social Media. In the long-term we hope that will help HIV+ youth and their families to improve the condition of their lives and use their skills to become educated leaders dedicated to preventing HIV and AIDS, reducing HIV and AIDS related stigma and discrimination, and advocating for rights and access to care for HIV+ individuals in their communities and around the world.
Creating a Safety Net of Care and Support
In the midst of all these projects, what has been the most moving and inspirational for me, is the bonds between our members within their association, among the associations throughout the region, with the EFA regional staff, and even members of EFA International Board of Directors. These bonds form a safety net of care and support for these youth infected or affected by HIV/AIDS and their families. From daily interactions, to life-changing events, these bonds provide the strength and support to not only live HIV-positive, but to thrive. Over the past year I have seen the positive effects of these bonds on countless occasions, but two in particular stand out.
During this past year, Sarah*, a YEN association member fell ill and as a result she was placed on ARV medication. Sadly, her mother refused to accept her HIV+ status and as a result prevented her daughter from taking her medication, instead blaming her for becoming infected. Fellow association members heard about Sarah’s problem and after gaining the support of her siblings succeeded in convincing her mother to care for her child and support her in her road to recovery. Over the next few weeks, association members frequently visited Sarah, and found that her condition was not improving. It became clear, that although the mother wanted to help, she didn’t know what to do or how to help her daughter adhere to her ARV treatment. Again, association members went to her house and talked to both her and her mother about the treatment, dosage, and timing. A few weeks later, an association member was at the office. She had just been to visit Sarah and was telling me how much better her condition had gotten. The safety net had saved Sarah’s life.
On a lighter note, a few weeks ago I was honored to participate in a douba for one of our association members, Aissatou. A douba is basically a traditional wedding shower where female friends and family gather to give presents, dance, and eat together. After losing her husband to what she later found out was AIDS, and discovering her own status, Aissatou never though she would get married again. However, joining her association changed her life. Today, she is the president of her association and one of the strongest women I have ever met. She takes pride that she is in a healthy relationship where she and her soon-to-be husband are partners who communicate and share responsibilities and decision-making. I couldn’t help but smile the whole night, especially in seeing the members of her association and others, now her close friends, sharing much laughter and love.
Your Support Matters
These stories only give a brief glimpse into the multitude of new and existing programs and projects that EFA International has led during my one year. Though 2011 is coming to an end, our activities in Cameroon are continuing full speed ahead. To continue our important work, we need your support now more than ever. Please consider supporting EFA International, our activities, and the Youth Empowerment Network in one or all of the following ways:
- Donate to EFA International or to one of our ongoing program areas on the online giving site, Global Giving, or on our website, www.efainternational.org. Our ongoing programs include the Youth Empowerment Network, Peer Education, and the Youth Empowerment Center. To learn more about these programs and how you can give visit our donation page.
- Share our story and your experiences with EFA International with your friends, family, and colleagues. Encourage them to learn more about our organization, our values, our work and our beneficiaries. Talk about us, forward this email or other EFA communications, suggest they check out our website, www.efainternational.org, or become a fan of our Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/efainternational.
- Volunteer your time or your skills for EFA International. Our Board is 100% volunteer, I am a volunteer, and for the first few years of existence our entire regional office staff was volunteers! We know that your time and your skills can be just as valuable as any monetary donation. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about volunteer opportunities both in the US and in Cameroon.
EFA International has changed my life; I challenge you to let it change yours.
We are together, nous sommes ensemble.