(Like many of these more recent blog posts – I meant to write this post months ago!)
World AIDS Day is recognized on December 1st of every year. It can be acknowledged in many different ways. Some of you have most likely participated in World AIDS Day events – voluntary testing, candlelight vigils, speaker panels, etc. In Cameroon, this day is often a very lively affair. It is celebrated (I use that verb with purpose) through dances, skits, presentations, testimonies, etc. Everyday can be a reminder of what loss the HIV/AIDS epidemic has brought, so World AIDS Day tends to focus on community resiliency – prevention and support, rather than the lost. My original intention was to sit down a write a blog post in honor of World AIDS Day and document the realities of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Adamawa Region (where my village is located), which has the highest rate of HIV in all of Cameroon at 9.1%. Outside of HIV prevention presentations that I have shared with many groups, conversation around HIV/AIDS is limited due to fear in going against religious beliefs and widespread stigma. My hope was that the World AIDS Day events that we planned would provide me with more insights and anecdotes that would be helpful in terms of work and that I could share here. But, as with many things in the Peace Corps (in Cameroon, in life in general?), things didn’t go according to plan.
Lokoti did celebrate World AIDS Day on December 1st… and December 2nd, with some hiccups. In looking back at the rollercoaster that was planning and implementing World AIDS Day events, I have realized it really mirrored Peace Corps service as a whole. As Peace Corps volunteers, we experience many highs and lows throughout our service. Sometimes the highs or lows can last for a full month, but more often, they change on a daily to weekly basis due to the nature of our work and our distance from the familiar. Let me use World AIDS Day as an example…
Holding a World AIDS Day event in Lokoti was very important to me. As the first volunteer in this village, I am trying to lay the foundation through presentations, conversations, demonstrations, etc. for more focused and impactful HIV/AIDS interventions in the future. Additionally, I had heard that the year before an NGO had come to Lokoti and hosted an event that people still talk about, therefore there was a lot of community interest. I was approached by the president of the youth association (L’association jeunes solidaires de Lokoti) and was thrilled at the opportunity for collaboration – after all, the most successful projects are those planned and managed primarily by the community. I was so excited after our first planning meeting with the executive board of the association: the Sport Chair was going to organize the teams and football match, the President was going to handle publicity and equipment (generator, amplifiers, etc.) rental, others were going to prepare a presentation and the Social Chair was going to gather the actors/dancers for the skits, etc. Fast-forward to the next meeting when everyone says they are still working on their tasks. Every subsequent meeting was like this and I started to feel more and more discouraged. I had to keep telling myself to be flexible and that the event planning in the United States that I was used to was unlike event planning here.
I found out on the day of the event that my worries were not unwarranted. Up until the last hours of the event, we were running around trying to find another generator and gathering enough benches. The projector we asked to borrow from the health center ended up being in a neighboring town, so we had to send someone to get it. In addition, the Social Chair never did gather people to perform dances, so we’d have to go without. The only thing helping to relieve my stress in those hours was the fact that a lot of people were watching the football match we organized as a type of publicity and that they were going to head to the main event afterwards.
After all the running around during the day, we breathed a deep sigh of relief when everything was set up in front of the chief’s house (the benches, the amplifiers, projector, laptop, music, posters, etc.). We were excited to execute the event that we had planned – to have a few speeches and presentations about HIV prevention and then show “Scenarios d’Afrique,” a collection of short films made by young Africans on the subject of HIV/AIDS prevention, support and stigma. We gave presentations, people asked questions and all was good as we pressed play on the first short film. After about 3 minutes of the film, the generators that we had started having problems. After an hour of trying to fix the problem, we had to call it a night – it was around 10pm. I was upset these technical difficulties would be unfixable, but I was assured that with a few changes we could show the film the next night. I was worried no one would show up for the second night.
However, despite these difficulties, we attracted huge crowds both nights. There were people of all ages and market mamas came to sell snacks to the masses. On night two, I was marveling at how many people came back, even after the failure of the night before, when across the way I noticed a group of people huddled and yelling. I went over to watch what I thought might be someone dancing as we waited for the film to start. I was shocked to find a boy whipping (with plastic tubing) a young pregnant woman. The woman had arrived in Lokoti just a few weeks before and was living at the hospital. She had walked from the Northwest region of Cameroon and had only a piece of fabric to clothe herself. While I cannot say with certainty, it seemed as though this woman had a mental disability. “Fous” (“crazy people”) here are treated very poorly by many people – it is not uncommon for people to throw rocks at them or shout at them to leave. I stopped this abhorrent activity right away and tried by best to comfort the woman. Coming from the Northwest, she spoke Pidgin English, so I tried my best to communicate with her and eventually we ended up sitting together. She left to go back to the hospital an hour later, but for that entire hour people kept a distance from me, approaching me only to ask me why I wasn’t afraid of her. After that situation, I was surprised to find myself later in the evening joining in on the cheering as some brave youth participated in a condom demonstration relay race and as they answered trivia questions about prevention. I found myself just as proud of certain members of the community as I was disappointed in others just a few hours before. Talk about highs and lows.
So in conclusion, no, the event did not run seamlessly or truly according to plan and neither has my service. However, laughs were had, key information was transferred and a community was brought together on December 1st (and 2nd) and hopefully my service will have those same effects.