22 August 2012

Biking through the Jungle

A while ago, some fellow PCVs were thinking a loud about taking a bike trip from Ambam in the South region to the beach in Campo through the Campo-Ma’an National Park. It sounded like an amazing, yet lofty, idea. Somehow, though, we just realized this project.
Bike team members from left to right: Joe – Captain. The one who did the organizing and talking with all the villagers along the way. He was also our bike mechanic. We started at his post in the South. Eddie – Posted in the East in Messamena near the Dja reserve. Awesome guy who is doing collaborations with UNICEF, so I get to see him every time he comes to Yaoundé because he stops by my office. Ryan – In charge of food and security. He was essentially posted in the East in Messamena for 6 months. I also got to see this guy every time he came to Yaoundé because he could not stay at the peace corps house so he stayed chez moi. Goeff – the EMT who would save our lives if anything went wrong. Posted in the East in Kenzou on the border with CAR. Me – the voice of reason (or just the annoying squeaky voice that you can’t turn off).

The trip started by all five of us heading out of Yaounde together to Ambam. Once in Ambam we spent a day organizing things, fixing our bikes, and getting last minute supplies for the trip.
Then we took a car to our starting village of Nyambissang. That afternoon we biked to a nearby village and then hiked to some waterfalls with a guide.
We had to cross the river in pirogues, one by one. Eddie made it without the help of our guide, while the rest of us took turns crossing with the guide. Then we made it to the bottom of these amazing waterfalls. It was kind of like two rivers running parallel, one 50 feet above the other and every 10 feet or so there was a waterfall until the whole top river joined to bottom one. It was a very enjoyable hike to start our trip off.
The next day we decided to start out really early to get through the entire national park because there were no villages inside of it. This was it, it was the test. We were going to be biking with all of our stuff on the backs of our bikes: food, clothing, tents, etc. I was pretty nervous because I was the only girl trying to keep up with all these strong guys. The rain started in the middle of the night and kept on going. I could hear it all night in my sleep, but when we woke up we realized that the tin roof was making the rain sound a lot harder than it actually was. It was really just misting, so we decided to continue with our original plans. Before picture:
So we were off. The beginning was very steep hills and I was struggling a lot. I refused to go fast down the hills and then I could not get a lot of momentum to go up the hills. But after maybe 10km we hit the national park and the hills were much more graded and it was easier to do.
That first day we made some really good long runs where we didn’t stop for several kms. Somehow we made it to the end of the park. We were exhausted. And pretty dirty.
We stopped at the first village that had a guest house. A family there made us a very western meal: mashed potatoes, macaroni, and meat and peas.
The next day we took our time and set out a bit later after a nice breakfast. We stopped in one of the next villages and had an amazing shrimp lunch.
Then we had the afternoon to make it to Campo. It started raining harder when we set out and the road got muddier. We also started having some very major problems with the bikes. Ryan and Geoff were both stuck in gears 2-7 for the rest of the trip (aka impossible to climb hills in). At one point we started being able to smell the ocean, there was a noted difference in the air with an added humidity and the smell of saltiness. Then we made it to the ‘Welcome to Campo’ sign.
It seemed like a miracle. We rode through town straight to the ocean and jumped in. In campo we relaxed, cleaned up all of our stuff, got to see Equatorial Guinea and hang out on the beach.
Then we set out for Kribi by 4x4 (with all of our bikes on top). That morning they overpacked the car, so I didn’t really have a seat. Let’s just say it was one of the most uncomfortable rides I have had in this country (and I have had my fair share of uncomfortable rides). We slid a lot getting out of town and I really thought we were going to tip. Then at one point the road was completely blocked by several trucks. It took a lot of talking with the truck drivers but the problem was easily solved when two of the trucks moved back just out of the way. While the actual problem was solved in less than five minutes we sat there for almost 2 hours figuring it out. Finally we were on our way again to Kribi.
Kribi was great. We met up with several other volunteers and celebrated Yaya’s birthday. Basically we just hung out at the beach all day for 2 days straight. Good company, good food, and a beautiful ocean, what more can you ask for. I went for runs along the beach in the morning and got to see Lobe falls, a waterfall that goes directly into the ocean. Beautiful.
Then it was the end of our vacation and I headed back to Yaoundé. Back to reality. I hope I get a chance to do more trips like that in the future.

14 August 2012

Community Led Total Sanitation

I think my last blog came from a place of frustration. There are always frustrating days and times. But it goes back and forth between better times where I am satisfied with what I am doing. So this post should balance out my last one a bit.

Recently, I just got back from a week-long trip to the East and Adamaoua regions. I went to supervise and help out with the implementation of a process called Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS). In the past I had done an evaluation trip to check out villages that had already gone through CLTS and see if the approach was working and community members were still involved in the processes. This trip, though, was more focused on actually setting up the process in new villages. Well actually I started the trip in the East to celebrate with villages that had accomplished open-defecation free (ODF) status and then went on to trigger new villages in the Adamaoua.

Maybe using all these terms is a bit confusing, so let me explain CLTS a bit. CLTS is an approach used to push (or trigger) villages into taking responsibility for their own sanitation. It works using innate responses such as shame and guilt to trigger community members to take action out of disgust for the sanitation situation in their village. Obviously it does not work in all villages, but in smaller villages where there have not been previous hard ware subsidies for sanitation projects, the villagers may become motivated to build their own latrines and do what they can at their level with their own means to make a positive change to stop the faecal oral route. They build latrines and set up community sanitation initiatives to clean up the environment over the course of several months after which they can achieve ODF status. Once it is achieved, a celebration takes place and a sign is made to let other villages know that open defecation is not permitted there.

So now more specifically about my trip: it started in the East with ODF celebrations. While these were fun, they were not the heart of the process and at times it felt like it was more about the food and the soap that UNICEF was giving than it was about the actual achievement of ending open defecation. I went to two, both right around a town called Garoua Boulai, which is on the border with the Central African Republic. I liked the East a lot and while in Garoua Boulai, I stayed at a small guest house run by a Christian parish. It was very quaint and cute.

Next I continued on the road to the Adamaoua to work with another central team working on triggering villages. This was a much more complicated process. Activities took 4 days because we started the first day with a conference to train department level people to implement the process. Then the next two days we split everyone into 2 teams and each team visited 3 villages a day. So by the end we had triggered 12 villages. Then the final day we asked the locally formed monitoring committees to come to the department setting to present action plans and we showed them how they would do monitoring and evaluation in their respective villages.

In each village we would start by introducing ourselves and having the community draw a map of their village in the dirt. They would label public places such as schools, churches, mosques, and water points with small pieces of paper. Then everyone would get up and label their house. After this we would ask everyone to label where they defecate. At times it was difficult because people do not want to admit they don’t have a latrine. In one village things got blocked because the chief made a statement that everyone had latrines and no one was defecating in the open. After that no one could challenge the words of the chief. Activities went best if the chief was very open and honest about this topic. Some people have latrines, but others did not and so we wanted them to identify where they were doing their business. Then we would go on a walk to the places where open defecation was happening. Usually a young child would lead us to the spots because they were the mostly likely to disregard the cultural norms of not talking about defecation. We would bring back a ‘sample’ to the community gathering. This is where the shame and disgust started to kick in. People would look away and generally act uncomfortable. Using this ‘sample’ and nearby mud/rocks we would do a calculation of how much one family produces over a day, then two days, then a week. Then we would estimate what that means for a village of 10 families or 100. In this way people realized that it is actually a problem that needs to be dealt with.

After this calculation we would do a demonstration using bottled water and a glass. We would ask who wanted water and several people would raise their hand (of those who were not fasting for Ramadan). We would give water to all those who wanted it. Then we would take a small piece of straw and touch the poop sample with it and then dip it into a new glass of water. This demonstrated that even though you could not see the germs, they could still be in the water. No one would drink this water even though it looked the same as all the glasses before it. At this point the community would become very emotional. The connection had been made that they were in fact eating each other’s sh*t. We would then lead a short calculation of medical expenses due to faecal-oral transmitted diseases. Some people would become very adamant that this needed to stop in their village. And a few volunteers would come forward to form a local monitoring committee to ensure the sanitation of their villages.

I really enjoyed these triggering processes and found that everything went more smoothly when the implementation team sat amongst the villagers instead of creating a separation. Women would be whispering to me on the side during the events, making jokes about how much poop it was or just showing their disgust. Everyone was freer in this manner and less formal, thus people were more involved.
This trip really reminded me how much I love being in a village. I enjoyed so much getting to see village life again and to go at a slightly slower pace, see the sunshine and just not be in the office. I was working in a village which previously had Peace Corps volunteers, so the former counterpart welcomed me graciously and took care of me while I was there. I would go to his house every night and eat dinner and just make small talk. I think this might be what I miss most, feeling like I am part of a family and a community again. Thankfully I had this reminder and now I am re-energized for the months ahead to follow up on these villages that I personally got to see. I hope to go back in a few months and see them again, hang out with them and maybe even see a positive difference in the community.
This is a picture of the team I worked with in the Adamaoua.