Maroua AFSU Coop

[Note: This is part three of a three-part series. Links to part one and two are located at the end of this essay.]

In September of 2003, East Church member Cheryl Goss committed two years of service to the Peace Corps in Cameroon, Africa. Through letters sent back to the church the congregation learned about some of the needs of the people Cheryl was working with. The benevolence committee decided to raise money to construct a well. So much money was raised that Cheryl was able to assist two communities in building potable water sources and assist another volunteer in realizing an income-generating project for people living with HIV/AIDS. The following is a description and photographs of the completed projects.

In September 2003, I decided to join the United States Peace Corps to work internationally and gain insights into another world and culture. For the past two years, I served, alongside Cheryl Goss and others, as a full time volunteer in Cameroon, West Africa focusing my activities in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Although the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a worldwide public health problem, no region is as affected as Sub-Saharan Africa. I came to Cameroon finding a country with an HIV prevalence rate estimated at over five percent in the general population. While this statistic may sound relatively low, it really means that in a group of twenty Cameroonians, the odds are that at least one is HIV+. Here in Cameroon if you are not infected with HIV/AIDS, you are affected. Every Cameroonian has at least one family member or close friend that has been a victim.

I'd like to take this opportunity to explain the HIV epidemic and its effects in this community; and to explain some of the activities that your donations have established to support people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. In the developing world, HIV is not stigmatized as an infection for IV-drug users, or homosexuals, but rather it is a disease of poverty. The poor are the most affected, and most stigmatized. Let me give you a general example to better illustrate the point.

Take, for instance, the Extreme North province of Cameroon. The majority of people lives in small, isolated villages and do not have much inter-village contact. Personal subsistence farming is the norm and education has little benefit, as it takes children away from working in the fields. The provincial capital, Maroua, is the center of commercial activity but is a day's travel for most people. Imagine that a large factory or company moves to Maroua and decides to open operations. For this, they need a tremendous work force and put the word out in all of the small villages that there is work for the village men in Maroua. This is a product of development and urbanization, and is happening across the continent. Urbanization is not a bad thing in general. Men working in the cities provide a new source of income to the family in the village. The focus can slowly be taken off of subsistence farming. Since there is adequate money, the children do not need to work in the fields all day long and can actually go to school. Education, especially for girls, is important for the development of a society.

All of these village men move to the city, work together, and live in boarding houses together (most likely provided by the company). They are sending money home to the family monthly. Whenever large amounts of single men are together (especially after receiving monthly wages maybe for the first time in their lives), prostitution also arises. It only takes a few HIV+ prostitutes to introduce the virus to this male-worker population efficiently and lethally. The men become infected. During a holiday break or the national month-long vacation, the men return to their villages and bring HIV with them to every corner of the province. Hence, their wives now become infected as well.

As the men were the first to become infected, they are also the first to become sick and eventually pass on. The women are living in the village with HIV but don't know it yet. Once the men become sick and die, they are no longer working and no longer sending money to the village. These women now need to provide for themselves. They need to send these children to school and feed them (with nobody left to work in the fields). Often these women will turn to informal prostitution themselves to pay the bills or provide for the family. In this manner HIV infection has now moved into the general village population. The infected women will start to become sick and, hopefully, join an association or support group of other HIV+ women so that they can collectively look for solutions to their medical, nutritional, and spiritual needs.

For me, HIV was not something that I heard about on the radio or television, but it was something that affected my daily life. My coworkers and best friends were HIV+. I regularly ate at their houses, played with their children, and listened to their stories. Stigma against people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) is high, and the fear of being infected is real. I saw friends chased out of their house by their parents, and children who watched their families fall apart after the death of their young mother or father. There are few associations who have begun to address the financial, nutritional, and psychosocial needs and constraints of the increasing number of people living with HIV/AIDS. The cost of medical care for a PLWHA totals 300 USD per year for medication and necessary tests. The average Cameroonian lives on less that one dollar a day.

AFSU- is l'association des freres et soeurs unis and the first association of people living with HIV/AIDS in the Extreme North. I started working with them in January 2005. It ended up being my primary project and I began to focus my work on doing capacity building with this association. We managed to get our membership up to over forty people and hold regular monthly meetings. This is AFSU at the inauguration of the new facility.

With the money that you donated, we rented and renovated an office in the Pont Vert neighborhood of Maroua and started different income generating activities inside:

1) We bought two commercial grinders and opened them up to the community. The revenue from this employs two members full time and gives AFSU money for their activities (basically paying for the medical bills and medications of members).

2) The members of AFSU expressed interest in selling packets of a combination of ground millet, soy and peanuts to make an enriched bouillie, which is a culturally important food source in the north of Cameroon. The facility is used to stock the materials, the grinders are used to grind them, and the office is used as the depot center for sales. The women themselves are the people who make the packets, sell the packets, and manage the industry. If nothing else, this project is offering full-time employment to marginalized women and giving them a sense of importance in the community. They are needed and necessary to this organization. The sense of worth alone can motivate people to stay healthy as long as possible. With the proper interventions and support for marketing and management, I am convinced that these projects will continue to be extremely successful and help insure that the associations will be able to support themselves independently in the future. Mme Vondou is the president and backbone of AFSU. The others follow her lead, and she is completely capable of doing these things. The project has been initiated small-scale and is currently supporting several members for monthly medication needs, and supporting school fees for members' children.

AJEPS- This is the association of youth that I started in Maroua. We started the association in February with a couple of the younger members of AFSU who were interested in starting a group more specific to their needs.

The money donated exceeded our expectations and with the surplus we were able to initiate another small scale project with AJEPS. They are sharing the office space with AFSU and sell water in the neighborhood to provide them with money to help for medical costs and medication of the members. Although AJEPS is newer, I've been working with their bureau since we started the group and they are a lot more cohesive and organized than AFSU.

Water is life, and a problem for much of northern Cameroon. Most people cannot afford the expensive installation and subscription fees to have clean water available. The money donated was enough to pay for both of these. AJEPS's project uses the pushcarts and buckets (pictured here) to sell potable drinking water to the community at a reduced price with a profit to them. This money is being used for the same interventions as AFSU: subsidized medical costs for members as well as nutritional and educational assistance.

The money that you have donated has gone a long way in Northern Cameroon, and the members of AFSU and AJEPS feel indebted to your generosity. I will continue to provide your church with updates as often as possible, and am prepared to accept further personal or group donations to help these groups and other AIDS orphans of Maroua. I am in constant contact with these two groups through telephone and email and am always looking for new innovative ways to support them.

Future money would go to increase education services to orphans, especially girls, and successfully enroll as many as possible in school to give them the chance to succeed; in addition to the establishment of new income generation activities for these groups. Thank you again for your compassion, generosity, and concern for these communities. Don't hesitate to contact me at 202.413.1629, or to learn more about how you can help.

Andrew P Koleros, MPH
RPCV Cameroon '03-'05

Click this link to read part one.
Click this link to read part two.

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