From the district hospital in Bertoua, I travelled with the Pampers and UNICEF team to Lembe village a short distance away and home to 240 villagers, the majority of whom were children.
It was a village I found to be particularly desolate and bleak and many of the children looked quite despondent. Yet many of the villagers came out to greet us and sang an upbeat song about UNICEF and tetanus. Alex, one of our UNICEF representatives from the UK, was presented with a bouquet of flowers.
The fact that we were made so welcome in Lembe village, and in all the villages we visited during our time in Cameroon, was due to the very strong links UNICEF has established with these communities. As a result the villagers were happy to welcome us into their homes and talk openly to us about their lives.
The first person we interviewed was Mr Desire Andono, a community mobiliser. Without television or other forms of mass media, the villagers relied on mobilisers like Mr Desire to educate or ‘sensitise’ them about health issues such as tetanus. An important part of any mass maternal and newborn tetanus elimination campaign is explaining to women the importance of being vaccinated as well as providing practical information about where they can receive their tetanus vaccines.
Mr Desire spoke with great enthusiasm about his presenting role at the local radio station and his weekly programme ‘Let’s talk about health.’ He was very keen to own a dictaphone so he could record locals for his show. As he explained this I was suddenly very aware of the dictaphone I had in my hand, something I had picked off the shelf shortly before the trip on the off-chance I might need it. I had given little consideration to the cost. How different the situation is in Cameroon. For Mr Desire it would cost him two months’ wages, yet he had a far greater need for it than me.
We then met Madame Meling Jacqueline, aged 20, who was nine months pregnant and due to give birth any day. As she spoke to us in her home about her wish to give birth in the district hospital, where conditions had shocked me that morning, I wondered what sort of birth lay ahead for her and whether she and her child would survive. She was waiting to receive the US$6 she needed to give birth in hospital from her sister. If the money did not arrive, she would have no option but to give birth at home with the assistance of a Traditional Birth Attendant (TBA). TBAs have experience of delivering babies but very basic training, if any at all, and limited resources.
When we were introduced to the village TBA, Madame Biwole Biscotine, later that afternoon, I was shocked to see that her ‘delivery kit’ consisted of just a plastic apron and a plastic mat. Women gave birth in her kitchen and were required to bring their own kit, including gloves. If they were not able to bring their own gloves then she would deliver the baby with her bare hands.
Despite her limited training, Madame Biscotine did have a comprehensive understanding of maternal and newborn tetanus. She understood that it could be contracted during childbirth as a result of unhygienic birthing practices, such as cutting the umbilical cord with unsterile instruments or treating it with contaminated dressings, and also how it could be prevented with vaccinations and hygienic birthing practices.
So despite the remote locations, the lack of education, and the poverty, the message about tetanus was getting through to these communities. The maternal and newborn tetanus elimination campaign in Cameroon, that money from Pampers and UNICEF was helping to fund, was proving successful and I left the village feeling a little more hopeful for the generations of villagers and their children living there.