Unification News for July 2003

AIDS: Blazing Cameroon's Candlelight Success

by Jennifer Hyman

The man responsible for helping Cameroon to become the world's largest and most expansive network of International AIDS Candlelight Memorials believes his unprecedented success could be mirrored worldwide, given sufficient resources.

As the president of the Yaounde-based International Relief Friendship Foundation (IRFF), Mike Lamson has used the memorial since 2001 as a catalyst to embolden people otherwise reticent to speak personally about the impact of HIV/AIDS and come together as a unifying, community-wide effort against stigma.

Gearing up for this year's May 18th International AIDS Candlelight Memorial entitled "Remembering the Cause, Renewing the Commitment," Lamson says he intends to continue pushing his efforts further out of the cities and into rural villages.

"Although we only worked in the capital of Yaounde in the first year, we were able to bring in 56 healthcare NGOs to speak at the event, we attracted 8,000 participants and had national television coverage," recalls Lamson.

But even though the first AIDS Candlelight Memorial in Cameroon was such a tremendous success, last year Lamson purposely turned his attention away from the capital, transforming the project into a network spanning 400 villages, with 25,000 participants.

"There are enough NGOs in the capital, as well as the UN, galvanizing awareness efforts," explained Lamson. "But most of these groups avoided the villages because there are over 300 regional dialects."

Lamson soon found that language barriers were easily surmountable when he turned to the fundamentals of peer education, drawing in local partners who best understood the most effective means of reaching out to their community members.

"As an American, not only can't I speak each dialect, but there's no way I can go to the villages and have the same impact as someone from that village, or understand their specific take on the disease," he said.

Consequently, by promoting factual information and combating rumors with its theme of acceptance, tolerance and honoring those who have died from HIV/AIDS, the Candlelight Memorial's impact was even stronger in rural communities than it was in the capital.

"In many cases rural families don't tell their neighbors why a loved one has passed, and it prevents them from ever really saying good-bye. It becomes something hidden and shameful during death ceremonies," said Lamson. "The AIDS Candlelight Memorial has been liberating, because it plays a definitive role in tackling stigma at the community level."

IRFF will scale up its efforts during this year's AIDS Candlelight Memorial to include 500 villages and perhaps 30,000 participants, but the organization is bearing the heavy financial burden that comes with promoting grassroots activism.

"We get stressed out every year over the expenses, as we spend the month before the Memorial printing up coordinators' kits for villages around the nation," said Lamson.

But Lamson believes the financial and time commitments are worthwhile, given the program's long-term impact and IRFF's efforts to tie the Candlelight Memorial to its yearlong activities, especially on World AIDS Day.

With the government's full support, last year Lamson also helped link the Memorial to the country's annual youth day. He worked with secondary schools in preparing banners and torches used during the youth day's marches, promoting AIDS awareness as a fundamental part of patriotism and citizenship.

Matt Matassa, the Global Health Council's International AIDS Candlelight Memorial coordinator, says Lamson has helped emulate what the Memorial is all about, by working with minimal resources to use the remembrance as a key advocacy tool.

"Cameroon's success can be credited both to Mike, who is an extraordinary and dedicated person with a passion for what he does, and to the government's commitment toward using the memorial as a means to guide their HIV/AIDS campaign every year," said Matassa.

But while Cameroon's success is unique, Lamson insists it doesn't have to be.

"The results are evident because IRFF has decided to promote Candlelight for its means of passive, positive intervention. But I believe our success could be replicated anywhere in Africa, or around the world."

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