By Deborah Sankey, Tim Day and Faye O’Hallaron
This blog describes some of the highlights and challenges of our work with Louis-Albert Tchuem-Tchuenté in Cameroon. We were privileged to learn a great deal about the day-to-day realities and practicalities of interventions against Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD). Our experiences generated more stories than we have time to tell, but here is a brief overview about lakes Barombi Mbo and Kotto. We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we enjoyed our work with the team there.
Having attended several planning meetings and gaining local permissions in Kumba; our first day in the field involved getting ourselves and all our equipment to our first field site – the crater lake of Barombi Mbo. Getting there was challenging and our journey involved a one -hour commute each way in local hand-paddled canoes but was set within breath-taking scenery. We arrived on the other side of the lake and walked through the surrounding cocoa farms- the most valuable commodity of the region – to the village itself. After greeting several village elders, we were taken directly to the chief’s house to discuss our work. We requested their permissions and support to help us conduct our surveys and interviews.
At this point the team split, half going back to the lake in search of aquatic snails and the remainder based inside the village church hall to begin collection of samples and conduct interviews by questionnaire. As the community rushed to be involved, our workload on the first day was greater than expected. We faced challenges in French-speaking situations. Meanwhile on the lake the malacological team were working under the full might of the African sun. Wearing their armour of waders and sporting only a simple kitchen sieve (Sainsbury’s RRP £4.99) and a pair of tweezers, the intrepid team delved into the shallows in search of the miniscule molluscs.
After both teams had completed their quota of samples for the day (the importance of applied statistics for you!), we regrouped and made our way back to Kumba setting to work analysing all our samples.
Several further days were spent in Barombi Mbo following a similar pattern of work, before moving on to our second study site Barombi Kotto. At Kotto, due to its rural location, we stayed in the vicinity of the second lake for the duration of the survey. This involved a three-hour journey along mud tracks, which was tricky even when dry and almost impassable on our return visit where two vehicles had succumbed to the mud.
We set up the lab in the local health centre, and were pleased to see a modern looking lab with clean white tiles and all the mod cons, minus however running water and electricity! Each day we collected water from the local stream and we had the foresight to bring a portable generator. Using this within the health centre meant entertainment was on hand for while we worked. The surrounding children could watch DVD films in the evening and adults charge phones in the health centre while we beavered away in the laboratory until the late hours of the evening. Deborah and Faye, being women, were lucky enough to enjoy the hospitality of a local family living within their vicinity. Tim and the male staff took up residence in the abandoned maternity ward. The family welcomed us with great kindness, cooking for us excellent meals every day, and ensuring we had everything we needed, we even joined the family for morning prayers.
The days followed a similar pattern of questionnaires, sample collection, and then analysis. The main difference was that the majority of the population lived in an isolated community on an island in the middle of the Lake Kotto. Unlike the clear waters of Mbo, the lake was smaller and much less enticing. The canoes were very rickety, made of half a hollowed-out tree patched-up with cement, making for interesting journeys across the lake. This community were less accustomed to foreign visitors and our supervisor was invited to spend a night on the island. We were lucky enough to be told stories by the community elders about the village’s history. It gave us a greater insight into the local culture and traditions and just how important the water of the lake was to their community identity and beliefs.
We faced many challenges throughout our trip and were pushed to our limit physically, mentally and digestively. With team work and perseverance we achieved our goals. We learned more than we can convey.