This week has been a rollercoaster. I’ve faced difficult challenges and I’ve received unbelievable love. As I’m looking back on the past week and writing about it, I’m finding everything that has happened very difficult to process; it may take me weeks, even months, to fully process and accept the surreal nature of this week. This missive will be longer than my past missives, as so much has happened to me, but this missive will mainly just contain a narration of events with little reflection, as I’m still not sure what to think.
I’m still conducting my research on childhood vaccinations, but I’m also shadowing and assisting within my skill and experience capacity in Dr. Sinda’s hospital, which is right next door to her home, where I am staying. Dr. Sinda is an infectious disease specialist, and she built the health facility herself, utilizing her resources to offer free services to women and children in the community.
One late evening, during the night shift, a young girl with pneumonia came into the clinic. She came in with her grandmother, an older woman, asking for some cheap drugs for us to quickly prescribe. Dr. Sinda asked the grandmother if the child was immunized against pneumonia, and the grandmother said yes. This could only mean that the vaccine that the young girl received was improperly stored in a cold chain; the vaccine that she was given was ineffective.
Upon examination of the young girl, Dr. Sinda came to realize that the pneumonia was severe. Her breathing was hoarse and fast. Her temperature was rising. She was weak and helpless. Dr. Sinda told the grandmother that a simple prescription would not do anything for the girl. In order for the girl to stay alive, she would have to remain in the clinic overnight under intensive care.
The grandmother refused the recommendation from Dr. Sinda, believing that intensive overnight care would be inconvenient for her and would not do anything for the child. All she wanted were some simple antibiotics. Dr. Sinda, being experienced, simply shook her head and turned away to treat another patient.
I, being idealistic and young, continued urging the old woman, telling her that the child would die if she refused care. The old woman stamped her feet and yelled at me, claiming that ‘Jesus Christ will not allow my child to die.’ I was without words.
The old lady, unable to get what she came for, hastily left with the child. I watched from the front door of the hospital as the old woman took the child away, knowing that the young, innocent girl was most likely going to die.
Simply put, I learned that you cannot help a person who is not willing to accept your help.
Next, I traveled to Yaoundé, the capitol city of Cameroon, over the weekend to visit the US Embassy for my emergency passport. After a 10-hour journey that passed through the beautiful, lush jungles of central Cameroon, I made it into the city.
My right buttock has been asleep for two hours in this photo.
Yaoundé is beautiful and huge, with rolling green hills surrounding all sides of the city. Blaise, my supervisor, and I stayed with a friend of his. His home lay within the Muslim quarter of the city, an urban area teeming with life and excitement. Within the mazes of its streets, Halal butchers worked on the side of the road, yelling out their daily specials, and tailors showed off the colorful and flashy garbs that they put in hard work to create.
The beautiful alleyways of Yaoundé
The Muslim quarter, however, straddles upon the sprawling slums of the city. Filled with temporary-looking structures built out of wood and sheet metal, it is a stark reminder of what life is like for many of the residents.
My visit to the US Embassy, however, was the most appalling experience. The embassy was located in the nicest part of the city, near the Turkish, French, and Saudi Arabian embassies. The hilltop neighborhood was filled with large, gated houses, surrounded by foreboding walls laced with electrified barbed wire. Fancy balconies on the houses looked over the houses onto the growing slums below. Behind the embassies was a large luxury golf course. The sight was nauseating. This neighborhood resembled the ones that I have seen elsewhere in places like Nairobi, Dar Es Salaam, Lusaka, and Cape Town, and highlights the extreme inequality that society harbors.
The embassy was a massive fortress made of granite. Tight security surrounded the compound, and I went through several levels of security screening before I entered. The consulate services were quick to process my information, and the printing of an emergency passport took only two hours. As I was waiting, I had the opportunity to speak with many of the Cameroonians in line for a visa to the United States. They were also eager to speak to me, as I was the only US citizen in the consular section that day.
I heard the stories of many Cameroonians hoping for a visa to study or to see long-lost family members who emigrated from the country. However, only one-fifth of the people that I conversed with received what they came to the embassy for. Over the span of my two hours there, I heard the microphone voice behind the glass window apologizing to person after person that a visa could not be granted to them that day.
A mere five-minute interview at the consulate section set the course of these people’s lives. I watched each of the rejected individuals quietly from the corner attempting to keep a straight face as they gathered their documents and walked away from the window.
My collection of challenging and even ugly moments culminated with my journey back home to my host family from the capitol. It was mid-afternoon by the time we left the city, and our journey back to Limbe consisted of a packed bus, two motorcycles in heavy Douala congestion, and a packed car.
Being stopped and harassed by police was what rubbed salt in the wound of our tiring journey. Cameroon is home to many random roadside police checkpoints that seek to find any excuse possible to squeeze bribe money out of travelers when something seems out of place. Upon asking for our documents, I showed them my flimsy new emergency passport and the police documents that acted as my visa. They refused the documents, stating that there was no visa in my emergency passport. Despite having the right documents and following the right procedures, Blaise and I bickered for almost half an hour with the officers who would not accept my documents, claiming that they were fake. Even as a veteran human rights worker who dealt with the police every day, Blaise found it challenging to talk to them. After around thirty minutes, the police gave up on us and let us go without paying a bribe. I was agitated and frustrated. I’m going to the local immigration office in a few days to get an exit visa stamped in my temporary passport. I hope that it’ll put an end to these issues.
It was past midnight when I finally made it back to my home in Limbe. My host family stayed up, however, waiting for me to come back, and I arrived with smiling faces and a bucket of warm water that they heated for me to shower. It was my first warm shower in a month.
Despite all the frustrating and ugly experiences that I have had this week, I have had an equal share of beautiful experiences. I love living with a host family. In the daytime, I collect data in the field and shadow Dr. Sindas’s work, and in the nighttime, I spend time and play with the kids before bed. I have the opportunity to practice and speak French in the house, and I come home each evening to an incredible home-cooked Cameroonian meal. The kids even cook breakfast for me every morning.
One of the many delicious meals that I have had here.
The Atlantic Ocean, just a short walk away from my home.
This whirlwind of a week leads up to now, where I’m writing my weekly update to all of you. I’ve only been able to recite my week’s events to you, as I’m finding it nearly impossible to reflect on this surreal week. Like I said above, it will take time for me to accept these experiences, but I will undoubtedly mature greatly from them.
One of my best friends from home wrote me an incredible, supportive email that uncannily responded to all my challenges this week perfectly. I am thankful that I am blessed with people like her in my life who support me and keep me on the right track. This week has been difficult, but I know that it will inevitably be part of a repertoire of challenging experiences that I will accumulate over my global health career. Thanks to my friend’s amazing words, I know that I will always do what I can to not allow these frustrating moments to deter me from my greater goals.
I have less than two weeks left here. Thankfully, I won’t be travelling anywhere far anymore that requires going through a police checkpoint. I’m just going to lay low, do my research, and enjoy my time left with my temporary family.
Thanks again for all of your support and kindness. I love and admire you all. I’m humbled by each and every one of you.