Medical mission

Medical mission

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Chinese University
Photos: Chinese University

A student survives illness and violence in rural Cameroon and returns with a whole new perspective, writes Zoe Mak

Many Hong Kong people have probably heard of Cameroon's successful national football team.

But probably not many know much about the West African country's history and culture, or would consider spending a year in its rural areas, dealing with disease and violence.

Kwong Wing-yan, 24, a final-year medical student from Chinese University, spent a year in Cameroon, volunteering in the countryside to provide medical help to villagers.

Kwong stayed in a village called Kumbo, about 500 kilometres from the capital Yaounde.

'It was my first time in Africa. I wanted to help people with the greatest needs, and most of the countries in Africa are poor and lack resources,' Kwong says.

Kwong went to Cameroon on her own. Her university lectures did not teach her half as much as she learned during her year in Africa.

Two of the most common diseases in Cameroon are malaria and Aids, but Kwong says, ironically, 'wealthy diseases' - like diabetes, hypertension and obesity - are also seen among the poor.

These diseases are caused by 'an unhealthy diet, with high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods such as avocado and palm oil', she says.

'The villagers need a lot of energy to work on the farm every day, and they can only afford to grow and eat food that provides a lot of energy.'

Kwong says she realised how unhealthy the diet was when she came back to Hong Kong. 'By the end of my trip, I had gained 9kg.'

It was not only the diet which endangered Kwong's well-being, though.

'I had malarial infections twice. I had a high fever, dizziness, headache and muscle pain all over my body - it was so bad, I couldn't get out of bed. I was lucky enough to be admitted to hospital two weeks after the infection started,' she says.

But that was not the worst of her fears.

'Violence is relatively rare in Cameroon because people are mostly nice and calm. But the government had been corrupt for more than 20 years and people living in the countryside were suffering due to the unfair allocation of resources,' Kwong says.

They finally started a riot in February 2008, which lasted for more than a week.

At the time, Kwong was in the city of Buea, at the heart of the violence.

'All transportation was suspended, so I couldn't go back to the village. I was staying with some local university students. We had very little food and help. We stayed indoors in a small room to protect ourselves from the gunshots and violence,' she says.

'One day, when the conditions seemed to be more stable, I went outside with a friend to try to call the people in Kumbo to tell them I was safe. But before I could make the call, we were arrested by some soldiers.'

Kwong says she and her friend were told to kneel down, and the soldiers were aggressive. 'I was so scared. I kept apologising to them for anything that I might have done wrong. They almost poured a bucket of water with animal droppings on us.

'Fortunately, one kind soldier came along and let us go.'

Despite the unpleasant encounters, the trip completely changed Kwong's life. She has learned to appreciate what she has, and she wants to use her knowledge and skills to help people in need in future.

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