Volunteer overcomes harsh weather and poverty to share lifesaving tips with his community
Nimbakri is not on most maps. Dusty and baked most part of the year in 40 degrees heat, it is a tiny cluster of huts where inhabitants earn a living pampering dwarf cotton plants and overseeing small herds of sheep, goats and occasionally cows. This year, the rains have delayed again and the harvest is forecast to be meagre. Famine could step in and the poverty that is already abject could worsen.
On July 14, 2015, a sturdy man with a bald had other worries on his mind when he left the village, which is perched outside of Toulou, on a blue bicycle. Extreme weather conditions and chronic poverty were not the only problems plaguing Nimbriki, Roger Boui said, even if they are all interconnected somehow. Too many women and children in his village were dying, many times from conditions that could be prevented with nothing more than the right knowledge, early detection and inexpensive treatment, he said.
Mr Boui has made it part of his mission to change the situation. During the past eight months, he says has cut the number of hours he spends on his farm and uses the rest of the day crisscrossing four villages, where he knock on doors to provide basic malarial care, ensuring families sleep under bed nets, encouraging pregnant women to attend prenatal consultations and spot malnourish children. Since he started, he has reached more than a hundred households, helping a dozen women to have medically assisted deliveries and detecting and treating scores of malnourished children.
He is one of dozens of community health agents working in parts of the Far North, where maternal and infant mortality numbers are some of the worst in the country. His work is part of a package unrolled across the region by several UN agencies working under the H4+ partnership. The partnership started in 2008 to “help countries strengthen their health systems and improve health services for women, children and newborns in places where they were dying at an alarming rate from preventable causes”. In northern Cameroon, H4+ partners are working with the ministry of health and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) to equip hospitals, train personnel, increase community outreach and lower the cost of medically assisted deliveries with subsidised birthing kits.
According to the H4+ partnership, infant and maternal health is still a disturbing problem in Cameroon. While progress appears to have been made in several areas of life like school enrolment, maternal and infants deaths have risen sharply in Cameroon over the last decade. In 2004, for example, there were 782 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births compared to 352 per 100,000 live births in 1998, according to several demographic and health surveys (DHS). Nimbriki and other similar places in the Far North put faces on the statistics. The region is one of the worst affected parts of the country, with an under five mortality rate of 168 per 1000 live births reported in 2011, the year with the most recent estimate. The problem is largely caused by low access to safe delivery.
Mr Boui, 47, covers at least 24 households every month. So far, he says he has helped more than a dozen women who would have otherwise delivered at home get medical assistance at the Toulou health centre.
“If everyone in the village is healthy, that goes straight to my heart. It warms my heart,” he said. “Many women did not come to the hospital because they thought it would be expensive but I tell them that it is not the case and encourage to go to the hospital because antenatal consultation has been made free. The delivery kit for example costs only CFA3000 and contains everything the women needs for safe delivery.”
His interventions and those of other community volunteers are paying off.
Antenatal visits and medically assisted deliveries have gone up 10 % over the past year at the Toulou health centre for example, thanks in part to the work of community health agents. Malnutrition has also declined significantly and a toll-free telephone terminal provided by the H4+ project helps in quick evacuation of patients and reporting.
“Many women are encouraged by the fact that they can get good medical attention and lower cost,” says Mr Mboui.