If you want to leave Buea, you have to go through Mile 17.   Marked only by a gas station and many rusty vans waiting to cram in just one more passenger before departing for any number of destinations around Cameroon, Mile 17 is nondescript but all-important.   From this crossroads, it’s an hour or two west to Douala (our city of arrival and site of my first Cameroonian gutter-pee), five hours southwest to the national capital, Yaounde, and half an hour south to coastal Limbe (one of our YAN sites and home to Half Mile, Mile 2, Mile 4, and all Miles in between).

Last Friday, Josh and I made our first venture north from Mile 17 to Kumba, where we spent the weekend volunteering at a community workshop series on HIV prevention.   The entire workshop was quite a remarkable project—a few months ago, Peace Corps volunteer Julian was asked by his community (Kosala II, a subsection of Kumba) to help address local issues of HIV transmission and prevention.  Julian applied for funding through VAST, a U.S. government grant program designed to support small projects in the developing world.  After receiving funds, Julian worked together with the local government to plan for the event. 

Our trip to Kumba was a smooth one, albeit accompanied by loud preaching from a fellow passenger (“and then Eve told Adam to eat the apple and so…”).  We were met in town by the lovely Buea and Kumba Peace Corps volunteers, who had already been running sexual health and hygiene classes for secondary school students since Wednesday.  After a quick lunch of Cameroonian style tamales and plantains (delicious!), we divided into groups to tackle the projects for the afternoon.  One group returned to school for the final round of sensitization classes.  The rest of us hopped on the back of motos (motorcycle taxis that my mom would certainly not approve of) and headed to Hope Clinic, the staging ground for Saturday’s free HIV screening event.

Our main task at the clinic was to wash out old test tubes so they could be used for blood samples the next day.  One of the doctors who has been collaborating closely with the Peace Corps on this project led us to the back of the clinic and showed us an enormous pile of discarded tubes (don’t worry, Mama, no biohazards).  We filled a big tile sink with soapy water, uncapped 400 tubes, and let them soak before rinsing each one and dipping it in alcohol.  When the tubes were deemed sterile, we made a final round through the clinic to make sure the rooms needed for the next day were in order—we found chairs for the registration/waiting room and rearranged the pre- and post-test counseling rooms.  The makeshift lab had to wait to be assembled until the following morning as the HIV screening kits require refrigeration.

Saturday was a huge success.   We arrived early to put up signs directing participants around the clinic and at 9:00 a.m. on the dot (very rare for Cameroon) the first interested community members were at the door.   Josh and I ran around all day with our Peace Corps friends welcoming each new arrival, directing participants from station to station (registration, pre-test counseling, blood testing, post-test counseling), and occasionally convincing large, muscular men that having blood drawn is not too scary.  I spent most of my time clarifying the registration questions for older participants—‘where are you staying?’ was the easiest way to ask about place of residence and ‘how many years?’ yielded the best age results.  A team of Cameroonian lab technicians and counselors took care of the real business; pre-test counseling involved small group discussions about HIV transmission and prevention while post-test counseling was an individual discussion with each participant about results and next-steps. Below, we've included a picture of our friend Erika advertising the event. Ever-fearless, Erika stood at a local crossroads yelling at moto drivers to come in for testing. Many followed her advice.

Josh also played photographer for events taking place simultaneously at a nearby school.  The Cameroonian Football Development Association, a grassroots organization, had been recruited for the day to run soccer drills interspersed with conversations about sexual health, puberty, and specifically HIV/AIDS prevention.  They were equally successful in coaxing kids to head soccer balls as they were in leading forthright discussions about bodily changes (in response to one girl’s assertion that during puberty women’s breasts grow, a female leader added, “and your butt grows way bigger too!”).

By 4:00 pm, 197 Kumba residents were successfully screened and had received individual counseling on next steps based on their HIV status.  The youngest participant was less than 1 year old, the oldest over 70.   Seven of those tested were HIV positive—this comes to a 3.6% infection rate, almost two percentage points lower than the national rate.

When the last participant left and Hope Clinic was rearranged for regular operation, those of us left got a ride from the District Medical Officer to the soccer field for the closing ceremony.   A tent had been set up for the occasion and each pole was wrapped in what appeared to be colorful streamers, but turned out to be pink and white toilet paper (dotted lines between each tissue square were clearly visible as they fluttered in the wind).  Under the tent was an official looking table with cardboard nametags for Julian, the Kosala II Quarter Head (effectively the local mayor), the District Medical Officer, and an esteemed doctor from the area.   Josh and I were ushered under the tent with the Peace Corps volunteers while the rest of the attending community members sat in chairs facing us (this kind of special treatment seems to happen a lot here—feels strange).  An hour after the scheduled start time, the speeches began. 

The ceremony was cut short by a torrential downpour, which brought everyone together under the tent to wait out the storm and watch the toilet paper quickly dissolve.  When the rain quieted down to a drizzle, the whole group was shuttled to an empty restaurant and served hot soup and boiled plantains out of giant thermoses.  And for dessert: a little bag containing a meat pie and a fish head.  In a generous gesture, the Quarter Head also bought everyone there (30+ people) a round of drinks.  My new favorite soda is now Top Pamplemousse. 

The next morning, we hopped on a bus for the ride back to Mile 17.  It felt great to return to our cool, mountainous Buea.  (Josh’s only regret about leaving Kumba: separating himself from “Classy Burger,” a restaurant that does not sell burgers but does sell fried chicken made by a Louisiana-trained Cameroonian chef.)