In June 2011, I received my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps. The invitation consisted of a blue folder with a litany of forms and an assignment booklet. It certainly wasn’t as grandiose as the folder I received four years earlier from my university (a full color portrait of George Washington – a bit superfluous, yes?), but it didn’t matter to me for I was one step closer to being a Peace Corps Volunteer! I must have read the first page of the assignment booklet one hundred times over. “YOUR ASSIGNMENT – Country: Cameroon, Program: Community Health Project, Job Title: Community Development Agent…” I could locate Cameroon on a map and had an idea of what a Community Health Project might be, but only a vague idea of what “Community Development Agent” meant.
Through these past months I have learned a lot about community – how to integrate into one and the roles of each member, institutions and culture in shaping one. I have also witnessed development – development aid in form of UNICEF/UNHCR handouts, development of infrastructure (paved roads!), early childhood development, etc. However, it was very recently that I was able to pinpoint something truly as community development.
This moment came as I took a seat to watch one of my counterparts, Ousmanou, give a presentation on facilitation skills to the group of “Mères Leaders” (Leader Mothers) at our Care Group workshop. Unless you are a Public Health major or a Peace Corps Volunteer, some of those terms might seem a little foreign so allow me to explain:
- Care Groups: The Care Group approach is a community health strategy. The program builds a team of “Leader Mothers” who will represent, serve and present important health information with groups of 10 households each. Each month, “Leader Mothers” will attend a meeting during which health center staff and community health volunteers will train them on nutrition, disease prevention, common illnesses and other healthy family practices. Following the meeting, the “Leader Mothers” will host a meeting for her own group of 10 households, disseminating the information she learned. The “Leader Mothers” will deliver vital health messages at a time that is convenient for the families using culturally appropriate language, stories and examples. This community-based strategy not only improves coverage of important health information, but also provides a supportive social setting for learning and asking questions. The approach was developed by World Relief in Mozambique, but has since been used in communities around the world. My counterparts and I have been really excited about the potential of this program, as is Peace Corps Cameroon. They want more volunteers to incorporate Care Groups into their work and recently brought in a “Care Group Expert” to lead a seminar. During the seminar, we found out that Lokoti is the only community (with a PCV) in Cameroon currently working with Care Groups. We are proud to be the pilot!
- Mères Leaders: “Leader Mothers” (Mères Leaders) are the driving force of this program. We currently have a team of 20 mères leaders (a leader and an assistant leader) from 10 different quartiers in Lokoti. They are responsible for their own groups of 10-15 families.
- Counterparts: Counterparts are the cornerstones of a Peace Corps Volunteer’s work. They are HCNs (host country nationals) who help you plan and implement work projects. A volunteer can have many different counterparts depending on the work they are involved with. For the Care Group project, I am working with three counterparts: Issa, Ousmanou and Abdoulaye. They are all part of the COSA (Comité de Santé), which is a group of people who volunteer their time to assist the health center with vaccination campaigns, nutrition days, etc.
This is the community development I witnessed:
1. a group of people living together in one place; 2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals.
The sense of community has been embedded in the project each step of the way. The project itself was suggested only after studying a community needs assessment. Before implementing the project, it was presented and approved by the Lamido and other village notables (as per village protocol). At that point it was understood that the project was not going to be the health center’s project, or my project, but the community’s project with each person playing his or her role to ensure success. In the case of the village notables, their role was of patron – lending their highly regarded support to the project.
During the planning and early implementation stages, I worked closely with three counterparts who through their membership in the village health committee had proven themselves as true public servants. The meat of the project – forming groups in the neighborhoods, identifying Leader Mothers, etc. – can be completing credited to the work that these men did, all voluntary and without financial recompense. This is especially noteworthy since most work in Cameroon isn’t completed without some “motivation” (financial or in-kind bribes or payment).
On the day of the training, this sense of community service that I saw in my counterparts was echoed in each of the Leader Mothers as they introduced themselves and explained why they wanted to be part of this program. They spoke of wanting to be promoters of healthy practices that would help people in their neighborhoods. An older woman spoke of wanting to learn new things, but to also lend her years of experience to the other women in the group. The head of the health center and a nurse attended the training as well to pledge their support and offer their technical knowledge and assistance to the Leader Mothers and their groups. Here’s to not asking what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!
In addition to the support of the community-at-large and the participation of the sub-communities that each Leader Mother represents, that day, during our first training, we created another sense of community – a community of Leader Mothers. Some of the women were friends, others knew of each other, but some had never met or interacted before the training. However, by the end of the training, they had formed a bond – after all, they were likeminded individuals who want to serve their community. The camaraderie was visible on Women’s Day when they marched together and presented a song to the Lamido of our village. They continue to support each other, whether in reminding a fellow Leader Mother of the date/time of our next meeting, or helping to explain a key health message in a different way. This solidarity is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the group transcends the social divide that normally exists between the Gbayas and the Fulbés (the two ethnic groups in Lokoti) at the village level.
a specified state of growth or advancement
Through this project I have seen many states of development. I have witnessed my counterparts developing new project design and management skills while strengthening their already existing skills as community leaders. I’ve observed Leader Mothers developing leadership skills and facilitation skills which lead to them feeling empowered to go forth and make a difference in their neighborhoods. The information they bring to their neighborhoods will eventually lead to less sickness and therefore will allow community members more time to go to school, be professionally productive and be a present, active and dynamic member in the community’s affairs and subsequent development.
Since learning is an ongoing process, I know that my understanding of community development will continue to change and if you will, develop. However, I can say that this Care Group project has certainly given me a comprehensive orientation on the subject!