Areavoices blog: Cameroon hospital helps fill enormous needsMany orphans or children in Ngaoundere have been abandoned in some way.
By: Martha Aas, missiontocameroon.areavoices.com
NGAOUNDERE, Cameroon — Many orphans or children in Ngaoundere have been abandoned in some way.
The life expectancy for men in this country is 53.5 years, for women 55.3 years compared to an average of 78 years in the U.S. Though many live to a ripe, old age, there is great mortality across the population. Women die in childbirth, men and women die from malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, traffic accidents, untreated cancers, diabetes and hypertension.
Many of these abandoned children come to our door to sell vegetables whereby they make a little money to help support themselves and their families. But the needs are enormous. A program started by a Canadian couple, Jack and Val Fredericks of Winnipeg, has about 65 children. It receives support from church people in Canada.
On Saturday we went with Val and Jack to the hospital where they had a little celebration with their “abandoned kids,” as Val prefers to call them. There was singing of old songs and learning of new ones from Jack and Linda, our physical-therapy person. The kids looked great dressed in their finest.
It is normal in this culture that abandoned or orphaned kids go to live with family members, but since the latter have kids of their own, they cannot always feed these extra mouths. Jack and Val provide food for the children once a month. After the ceremony, all of the kids went to a container from where they were handed rice, peanuts and red beans, a good supplement to their family’s food supply. The kids had large shopping bags to put the food in. Most reside nearby, but some live as far as 10 miles from the city and have to walk back that evening.
Val and Jack’s organization also provides scholarships for 19 of these children. They have two local social workers doing the screening of eligible families. On her visit this time, Val made a point of meeting each child.
Children who are placed with other family members generally are cared for, but they don’t always have the same status as the family’s biological children and may not have the same access to food. These children, however, all looked well-nourished and were full of smiles, but there are many more that aren’t so fortunate.
Another program was started by Ngaoundere Protestant Hospital in 2004 with funding from a Norwegian woman. It serves 100 children. It is part of the hospital’s “People Living with AIDS” program, but not all are children of parents who died of AIDS. Some are “vulnerable children” for other reasons. Each child receives 55 pounds of rice, 22 pounds of peanuts, 10 ounces of beef cubes (for sauce), 10 ounces of salt and four cans of tomatoes per month. School fees are not paid in full by the program; caretakers pay a part.
Going to church
On Sunday we go to church at the Millennium Church. Designed by a Norwegian architect, it has a very modern design. The floors are marble with a large marble rock for an altar. An American woman artist designed and made the beautiful stained-glass windows. Local carpenters fashioned the benches, and our old bodies find them not too comfortable.
At the beginning of the service, the choir — dressed in identical outfits — enters the church in procession, dancing down the aisle to where they sit in the front of the church. The music is rhythmic, encouraging movement, and little children sitting in their parents’ laps instinctively bob up and down and side to side to the music. A solo by one of the choir members during the service brings on such enthusiasm that all clap to the beat, church members dance through the aisles up to the young female singer, and as a sign of appreciation, place coins on her forehead. During the rainy season, when everyone sweats more, the coins usually stick to the forehead, but in this dry weather they all soon fall to the floor.
After communion for the adults, the children from the Sunday school next door enter in pairs and parade to the altar where they are blessed by the pastor and his assistant.
The richest man in Ngaoundere
Monday afternoon we take Kirsten on a tour of Ngaoundere. We visit the Grand Mosque in town, next to which is the compound of the religious overhead, the Lamido. The domes and minarets are green, the color of Islam. We pass through many poor and dilapidated areas. Then in the quarter of town called the High Plateau, on the top of a hill, is the sprawling estate of the richest man in Ngaoundere. It covers about 10 acres. Floors are marble, doors and fences covered with gold and precious stones. He has his own magnificent mosque and many individual houses, presumably one for each wife. We cannot begin to estimate how much it has cost to build this — probably upwards of $10 million, an outrageous amount in this poor country.
Tuesday morning is cool and remains so because of the enormous amount of dust in the air; one almost chokes on it.
I was on the PT beat that day to observe Linda and Nicole in action. Linda Finn is a retired PT assistant from Duluth. An eminently adaptable person, she is comfortable in many cultures and has worked not only in Cameroon, but also in Mexico, and Central and South America. She set up the PT program in Ngaoundere about 10 years ago. Unfortunately, it was subsequently run by a Cameroonian physical therapist unwilling to work, so the program languished. Last year, Dr. Danki returned with his wife, Nicole, who has a degree in physical therapy from Leipzig, Germany. Linda is back to work with Nicole and to help grow the program.
Our first patient is a 74- or 82-year-old Fulani man — no one knows his age for sure — who broke his ankle six months ago and has been seen in PT before. He comes back for follow-up. Small and lean, he has worked the fields all his life; he is a little stooped and most of his teeth are missing, but he has a gleam in his eye. His gait is normal now and he almost is ready to ditch his walking cane, as his balance is good. He says a cheerful goodbye and thanks Nicole and Linda profusely.
The oppression of women and girls in the developing world has been skillfully detailed in Nicholas Kristof and Sheryll WuDunn’s book “Half the Sky,” an important book for women’s rights globally. The book is positive as the authors also provide ideas for solutions. Cameroon is no exception with regard to oppression and abuse of women, particularly in the Muslim society.
Adawiya is a 26-year-old woman who I meet on rounds with Nicole and Linda. She is just a wisp of a woman. She is serious, but readily answers questions, at times with a wistful smile. With considerable effort she manages to sit up with her legs over the side of the bed. Since age 8 she has had episodes where she experienced pain in her chest and stomach along with muscle weakness, she said. They always resolved.
But when her father married her off to an 82-year-old man against her wishes, the situation became acute. The father made it clear that if she left her husband he would disown her, which would put her on the streets. She fell into a state of stupor and was brought to the hospital five years ago and has stayed there since. Much of the time she has been in a catatonic state where she doesn’t move. Other times she has been in a stupor, seemingly unconscious.
Several months ago, she began taking an interest in her environment and Nicole and Linda were able to teach her to move into the seated position. She is a willing participant in this process and sits well. She also has been taking a few steps with a walker in her room.
Today, Adawiya is going outside. Linda and her translator, Erik, take her out in a wheelchair from her room in one of the pavilions and down steps. She stands herself up with much effort, sweat glistens on her brow. She holds onto a walker, and with help she manages to take about 10 cautious and laborious steps. Every step is a relearning of how to walk; it takes so much out of her that she almost loses her breath. She scrunches up her eyes against the bright sun. Having lived in relative darkness for so long, her eyes must adjust, but she smiles. Her mother watches her with joy; other patients and their relatives stop in their tracks to observe her, and nurses gather around whispering: “It’s a miracle!”
Next we visit Moussa in the burn unit. He is a 13-year-old Fulani who fell into a fire. His father says he had been hit in the head by a rock at school and spent some days in the hospital where he was given pain medication. After coming home, he was standing by the fire when he felt dizzy and fell on his knees into the fire. The lower part of both his legs received third-degree burns. He was taken to the burn center where he eventually was grafted.
Physical therapy has been intermittent because the parents have not or cannot pay their hospital bills. He cannot straighten out his legs or flex his ankles. He is a sweet, delicate boy but unable to withstand much pain and refuses to put weight on his feet. Linda and Nicole work with him for quite a while. The most he can accept is placing his feet on the wall and trying to straighten out the knees. His mother and father stay with him and seem quite indulgent.
Kirsten travels home
That night we saw Kirsten off at the train station — she is going to Yaounde to catch a flight home — and we go to dinner at Samuel’s house. Samuel is the only maintenance person at the hospital and also a driver. He is a tall, muscular man, with a ready smile, honest and sincere. His passion is raising pigs. He sells his pigs by word of mouth, and right now he gets a good price for his pork since there has been illness among others’ pig populations. He lives in the “Burkina,” an undeveloped part of town with mud houses and tin roofs. He asked us to come before sundown because people steal his electricity, so he might not have light. This is how most slum dwellers get electricity; they simply hook onto a power line.
Meeting up with Samuel
We meet up with Samuel at the hospital, and he drives our car along dusty dirt lanes and parks it above his house. It lies in a hollow by a stream that is almost dry. We walk down a steep hill on steps Samuel has cut into the dry red clay. The pigsties are in front of the house, which is dark. In the dusk, we wash our hands outside in water and with soap brought by his wife; no towel.
Once we are inside and seated in huge sofa chairs, Samuel is able to light up a neon bar under the roof. The room has a dirt floor and no ceiling. We have been here before, but he has remarried since then and has 3-year-old Rachelle with Felicite, his new wife. Besides Rachelle, he has six other children that live with family.
Samuel is poor, yet he shares one of his four chickens as well as fried plantain and water with us. He speaks French only, so I become the translator. We chat about their life while enjoying the chicken.
When we leave, it is dark, but there is a full moon, and the Burkina is beautiful in the moonlight.
Drs. Hans and Martha Aas are on their 12th medical mission trip to Cameroon, accompanied by three other medical professionals. They head a medical exchange between a hospital in Ngaoundere and Essentia Health St. Mary’s Medical Center. This is the third of weekly accounts that Martha Aas will share with Duluth News Tribune and Areavoices readers.