Youth Day in Cameroon Focuses on Stopping HIV
It all started with the sounds of marching, cymbals, and drum beats coming from outside my room in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. Was it a military parade passing by? I looked outside my window to see primary school children of all ages practicing marching formations. With shoulders back, heads held high, and arms powerfully swinging front to back, this was no regular recess. I asked my Cameroonian colleague what this impressive spectacle was all about, and he explained that these children, along with students across the country, were preparing for the Feb. 11 Youth Day event. Youth Day in Cameroon is a national holiday set aside to celebrate the country’s young people. Cameroonian youth showcase their talents in sports, cultural traditions, and the arts for community members, government officials, and parents. Each Youth Day focuses on renouncing violence and embracing education, sports, and the arts to improve future opportunities for young people.
The following week, I found myself in the southwest region of the country, and was told that work would be closed on Monday due to the Youth Day festivities. My colleagues at EGPAF’s partner organization in Cameroon, Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services (CBCHS), let me know of several events taking place in the surrounding towns, and offered me a ride to experience the celebrations first hand. Traffic slowed to a halt as we neared the grandstands. Here, the marches, performances, and football (not the American kind) were to take place.
We parked on a side road and I took in the lively, colorful scene around me: children in brightly-colored, freshly ironed uniforms, teachers in ‘wrappers’ (traditional printed clothing) representing their schools, and street hawkers selling cold water and sweets, which the kids clamored after.
Navigating our way through the crowds, we found some of our CBCHS colleagues carrying out community-based voluntary HIV counseling and testing. CBCHS’ Youth Network for Health (YONEFOH), which aims at reducing the onset of sexual activity among young people, took the initiative to educate the public on HIV and AIDS. This exercise, which has been ongoing since 2008 in Tiko Municipality, is considered an essential tool in reversing the spread of the pandemic. Many are becoming aware of their HIV status and adopting safer practices.
We heard the YONEFOH team before we saw them, proclaiming, “Free HIV testing here! Everyone is welcome! People of all ages, come; you are never too young or old to know your status!” We saw their mobile testing vans, tables staffed by counselors and nurses, and long lines of community members waiting to be counseled and tested. The team’s ambitious goal of testing 200 people over the course of the day’s festivities was almost met: a total of 179 people received HIV pre-test counseling and testing (98 women, 81 men), of which 157 returned to receive their results. A total of three individuals tested HIV-positive. These individuals benefited from additional post-test counseling and were referred to their nearest health facility for enrollment into HIV care services. They will also receive CD4 count testing to assess the state of their HIV infection. Counselors took down these individuals’ contact information to ensure they reached the referral sites and to offer follow-up services. Additional CBCHS teams carried out mobile testing at on Feb. 15, reaching a total of 72 people with HIV counseling and testing, none of whom tested HIV-positive.
Lauretta-Barbara S. Kometa of CBCHS said that efforts like these are crucial to stemming the tide of HIV/AIDS. “It is critical to reach youth early with relevant information geared towards behavior change that will enable them[to] delay the onset of sexual debut and adopting a responsible sexual life. Only then can we stop the epidemic. Through our presence at such large community events, we provide free voluntary counseling and testing for HIV which acts as information and motivation to those who test positive as well as those who test negative to protect themselves and others, thereby reducing fear and stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS.”
I was particularly impressed by the energy and enthusiasm the YONEFOH team displayed in mobilizing the crowds, making use of their microphones and platform like professional MCs. I was especially heartened to see that in such an open public space, community members felt at ease standing in line to be tested. This is the direct result of intensive community-based HIV education and awareness efforts carried out by CBCHS and other partners over the last 15 years. So much progress has been made!
Wishing our colleagues good luck in their long day ahead, we proceeded to the grandstands to find some shade and watch the children, grouped by class and school, march to the music of a local marching band. Some children bore the Cameroonian flag; others proudly displayed their school’s sign; some wore their football or martial arts uniforms; but all of them marched with pride, dignity, and determined looks on their faces that belied their young ages. The crowds, filled with family members, clapped and cheered as they watched the parade. With increasing access to HIV prevention and treatment education, this generation of Cameroonian youth is filled with promise.
Lior Miller is Associate Country Officer for Cameroon and Rwanda for the Foundation, based in Los Angeles, CA. Lauretta-Barbara S. Kometa is Community Initiative AIDS Care and Prevention Program Manager/Youth Network for Health South West Region Coordinator, CBCHS, based in Cameroon.