Thursday, February 3, 2011

One family at a time

Volunteers going to developing countries are often overwhelmed by the huge need they find and the slow moving change to improve the situation of those they try to help. Organizations like the US Peace Corps training manual suggest to the volunteers to focus on a specific child or family where it is easier to see ones impact.

With AIDSfreeAFRICA where I have worked for years on establishing a pharmaceutical industry - I knew it would not happen over night. However, our donors ask us: what are you doing? Is there any progress? Are you helping anyone? Is our money making a difference? The answers are yes, yes, and yes.

Joseph Kwende with son Steve
Most recently I was privileged to help the Kwende family. I met Solomon Kwende less than six month ago. Seemingly out of the blue he asked me if I have adult diapers. Coincidentally, my friend Anne Richard who has been providing AIDSfreeAFRICA the excess medical supplies from her son Michael, had previously offered adult diapers. To make a log story short. One of Solomon's brothers lives in Boston. One of his friends is a business man who sends 44 ft containers across the ocean. I loaded my car up with adult diapers and took them to Boston. Joseph Kwende's son Steve was a happy two year old baby when he had an epileptic seizure and went into a coma. Today he is 14 years old, can not walk, speak or take care of himself in any way. The father, Joseph once a successful business man himself became Steve's round the clock care giver.
Steve in his makeshift wheelchair
Three adult diapers a day at a cost of $200 every month is what he has to have plus medicine. That's in a good month when there is no crisis. In a country without cat-scan, MRI scan capability, no in-house aid, not physical therapy, no speech therapy, and other services Steve just grows bigger and gurgles when dad takes him on his lap and talks to him. That is when he looks happy. Bringing some relieve to a family struggling day in day out - is moving and leaves me appreciate every breath I take. 

For three days, Joseph in turn dedicated himself to help me with my many appointments with government agencies. He drove me everywhere, translated from French into English and translated statements that made no sense to me even when they were spoken in English. This is how I got a copy of our successful registration of AIDSfreeAFRICA as a Cameroonian NGO (non-governmental organization) His wife Delphine cooked and took me shopping for a few must have items I like to take home to reward our donors.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The vision to built a hospital in Esu

PolycarpNji has a vision -  to build a hospital in his home village of Esu. He is one of my closest collaborators in Cameroon. A nurse by education, he runs a small hospital in Limbe. However, his heart is in his home village of Esu. Last year he took me there to see for myself. A village of 30,000 to 40,000 souls, but no water, no electricity and worst, no bathroom facilities whatsoever. I can put up with lots of inconvenience, but this was too much - we left the next morning.

From left: Ruler Fon Albert, Rolande Hodel, Polycarp Nji, Madam Sholar
 Polycarp was not about to give up. He begged me to come back. He had a powerful alley in his Fon who had impressed me very much in the short time I had spent in his village.
Fon Albert is not like other Fon's I have met in Cameroon. He does not drink, has only one wife and only three children. He is educated and loves to works his farm with his own hands.
Most importantly he has good intentions for his people who revier him and whom he loves tenderly.

AIDSfreeAFRICA receives title of one hectare (3.3 acres) of land
 I asked him to host me and to take care of me - he agreed. I asked him to back up any possible projects with his people and AIDSAFRICA as a guaranty in form of land, he presented me the title - I asked him to set up meetings with his subjects - he did.

Armed with my "private bathroom" in form of a plastic bucket we went back to Esu and the rest is history.

I think I met most everyone in these five days. We hooked up young mothers with the Women Empowerment Center so they could get mosquito nets that are free and that they are entitled to but could not get because they had no ID card. We helped form the Esu Family Health Association and an association of the Youth. We hooked up the government health center chief of post with these groups, we AIDS tested, distributed condoms, taught how to use condoms and answered hours of questions concerning AIDS, drugs and life.... At night I would just fall into bed to wake up the next morning and share some of my breakfast with a small boy who visited me every morning to catch a few spoons of my spaghetti and eggs.
Members of the Esu parliament
The Fon kept his promise to take care of me. He hired the juju dancers to amuse us, he took time to sow me the entire village and surroundings, he had me tilt his farm, and most amusing to me, gave me his four wheel truck to dive to town - you have to imagine that in such a village there are no cars to speak off and no roads either.... However, the highest honor was bestowed on Polycap and myself when we were invited to step into the parliament of the Esu village and participate in an ritual of drinking shared palm vine. I was told no White had entered parliament in Esu, and I venture to guess, no woman either.

Now the work begins starting by installing a revolving drug fund until Esu has the Hospital it needs and deserves. I guess AIDSfreeAFRICA  has adopted Esu - or is it the other way around?  

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Know your status - AIDS testing in Esu

The faces reflect the seriousness of the situation. I always heard stories that African's don't want to be tested for HIV. Not in Esu. People were fighting to be able to participate and to get their hands on one of the few precious tests. The company has already promised 1000 more free tests. Upon hearing the news, the fon or ruler of Esu responded: "bring 3000 tests".

 Twenty people sat down in plastic chairs. Without tables they balanced the different parts on their knees. The test is new, uses saliva and no needles to prick to get blood.
Everyone receive AIDS counseling from AIDSfreeAFRICA collaborator Polycarp Nji, a Esu man who works as a nurse in far away town of Limbe. Three people tested positive and now know that fact and can start living accordingly. Fifteen people reacted seriously relieved, and hopefully start living their life using precautions.
Immunoscience, the maker of the test is working with AIDSfreeAFRICA to distribute the test in Cameroon.

In a separate meeting with 25 HIV positive people, AIDSfreeAFRICA was able to encourage these rather hopeless people to form an association to give them a voice and some support.
I was rather speechless when they told me that the district hospital in Wum had no antiretroviral drugs for the past two month. They asked what they should do? We know that people who stop taking drugs catch opportunistic infections and the death rate goes up. I promised to go to the provincial hospital in Bamenda and ask were the drugs are, and if this will not help to talk to the Minister of Public health in Yaounde.

The answer was almost as shocking as the fact itself: in Bamenda I was told that CINAME, the central government run distribution agency - the only institution in Cameroon allowed to handle import and distribution of AIDS drugs, was performing inventory in the month of December and that during that time they will not send out any drugs as not to confuse the counting. That of course means that the North West Special Fund that is responsible for Esu needs to order more drugs in October to have sufficient stock for the rest of the year. I will inquire next trip how we can make sure Esu has the drugs in stock.

In the mean time Christian, the newly hired "chief of post" or head administrator of the Esu government health clinic joined AIDSfreeAFRICA's meeting with HIV positive people. He offered to go to the district hospital in Wum once a month to pick up the drugs for every HIV positive member of the newly formed "Esu Family Health Association". This is a 2 hour trip that cost $4 one way. In Africa, the AIDS drugs are free but people can not afford the transport. This will be a big incentive for HIV people to come forward and join.