In this week’s volunteer interview, 1Day Africa communications lead Bertha Ndumbe discusses the COVID situation in her home country of Cameroon and her philosophy on public communications about vaccines. (Interview has been edited for length.)
Gavriel: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, where you are, and how you spend your time?
Bertha: I live in Yaoundé, Cameroon, but I’m originally from Limbe. There’s an Anglophone Crisis going on right now — I’m from where the crisis is, so I recently moved to the capital city for work.
Gavriel: What do you do for work and what are your interests?
Bertha: I’m a social media manager, mostly for local celebrities. My work schedule is really tight lately, so I just work all the time.
Gavriel: How did you learn about 1Day Sooner/1Day Africa?
Bertha: When COVID was skyrocketing, I was trying to find out what I could do to help. I came across 1Day Sooner and found out that you can help test vaccines. I researched trials, but it seems as though if you’re out in Africa or not in the country where the trials are, you have a disadvantage. So nobody ever called me, except Zach [Kafuko], who reached out and was like, “They don’t call us, but we can do something for Africa.”
Gavriel: What were you hoping for when you signed up? What was your goal?
Bertha: It was about being part of change and helping out in some way, because I felt useless. This is something that’s happening to everybody in the world, everyone has their opinion on it. I didn’t want to sit and feel powerless and not do anything. So I was just trying to get involved somehow.
Gavriel: How did you think about the risks and the personal aspects?
Bertha: I did [think about it], I just didn’t really care about the risks. I know that for there to be results, there must be sacrifices, and I was ready to be the sacrifice. Where I’m from, a lot of people underrate COVID, and they have very hilarious misconceptions about the whole idea of the virus — some think it’s a hoax. So I wanted to break the ice and show my community that some of us believe and care.
Gavriel: That’s really interesting. If all the people around you didn’t believe in COVID and were saying it was a hoax, that’s hard to break out of. How did you know it wasn’t a hoax?
Bertha: People were dying all over the world. If it was a hoax I’d have had the same level of curiosity because human lives were involved. I’ve always been very curious, I question everything. In my community, a lot of people believe in, “Show me, don’t tell me.”
Gavriel: So did you get pushback when you talked about it to people around you?
Bertha: Yeah, my brother thought I was crazy! He was like, “You need a psych ward! You’re going to Hell!”
Gavriel: Wow — was that hard to hear?
Bertha: Yes! But they’re my people, I know that’s just how they say things. So it’s not really bothersome. It was just funny.
Gavriel: What’s the pandemic situation like where you are?
Bertha: No one I know personally has been infected. One month the news would say, “It’s this many new cases” and then the next month, there’s no news whatsoever. If they’re handling COVID here, they’re keeping it on the low. Right now, it’s just stories and misconceptions.
Gavriel: Do people want to get the vaccine?
Bertha: No no no no no. In government offices, they are forced to, because they’re told they can’t come into the office if they don’t get vaccinated and that pushes people away more. So you can’t get, say, your birth certificate until you’ve had the vaccine, and people think they’ll get the Mark of the Beast and go to Hell. So they’ll think, I’d rather not get my birth certificate, which I really need, than get the vaccine. But then also, they’re not sure. The news tells us, there are no vaccines at this moment, but you go to an office and they tell you to get a vaccine. So it’s confusing — are there vaccines, or are there no vaccines? I understand why people are reluctant. Even people who do want to take the vaccine are getting confused with the information that is out there. They might be like, “I want to take the vaccine, where can I get it?” And the news will be like, “There’s no vaccine. When there is, we’ll let you know.” And you go to get an official document and they tell you, “We’ll give you the vaccine.” But then you don’t know what they’re giving you, because they’ve said there’s no vaccine!
Gavriel: Tough situation! I wonder how different it is in different areas, because Zach was telling us that in Zambia, there’s a snake oil market. People are selling fake vaccines because the population wants it so badly.
Bertha: Yeah, but in Zambia, the COVID rate is really high. In Cameroon, it’s lower than Zambia, but it’s not necessarily low. I just think the government is keeping it on the low somehow. COVID is a very sensitive topic here, because people have so many different ideas that bring panic. People would rather just not talk about it or hear about it on the news.
Gavriel: What projects are you currently working on for 1Day Africa?
Bertha: The communication plan. We’re trying to build content for 1Day Africa. My method, which is trying to relate with people, is very difficult. Considering that all of us at 1Day Africa have lives and work and school, there’s really no time to get to know each other and build content around relatability. With organizations these days, it’s about branding. A lot of relatability comes from how you brand your organization. Partnerships, help from philanthropists and more collaborations come from what people see and how they relate to 1Day Africa as an organization. But right now, since it’s just volunteers who have their daily lives to live, it’s kind of hard.
Gavriel: I know access to vaccines is very difficult in Africa right now, but do you see a path to getting more people to accept that they should get vaccinated because COVID is a real problem?
Bertha: Personally, I think that Africans engaging in challenge trials or having conversations and blogs showing that Africans are taking part, and are on the front lines with research, will tackle vaccine hesitancy in Africa.
Gavriel: What do you think is the barrier to more Africans being involved in research?
Bertha: There are no facilities in Africa that advocate for research and trials. None that I know of, if any. African researchers need to advocate for Africans to be part of research. That in my opinion would help with the African mindset on vaccine related issues. There are a lot of creative, credible doctors and researchers, but most of them here are hush-hush. Speaking up and reaching communities will ease the work of getting the population to be at ease with vaccines.
Gavriel: What do you think is stopping these creative researchers from speaking more about their work and research in Africa?
Bertha: They’re not relatable to the people around them. They have to find a common ground or some kind of way to relate to the people so they can both understand each other. If I talk about vaccines all day and someone tells me they’re the 666 mark, what am I going to say? I won’t talk about it the next day, I’ll just keep quiet. If I can bring up something that will tell you how important the vaccine is without ticking you off, then we can talk. So in my opinion, we have a problem with relatability.
Gavriel: What would you recommend to scientists and researchers to be more relatable?
Bertha: Relax and get to know the people , maybe pick their brains. I think we need more psychologists in vaccine-related projects, because there has to be mediation between the researchers and the common man like me.
Gavriel: Well, you and I are the mediators, because we’re the communications people for these organizations.
Bertha: Exactly. But we communicate more with people who are already involved or would love to be involved with COVID related issues. Like my mum thinks even thinking about taking the vaccine means you’re ready to sell your soul to the devil.
Gavriel: So you’ve never really managed to get through to her, huh?
Bertha: No. But I think if she saw just one one African who she can relate to who did the trial and was okay, she’ll start questioning instead of judging altogether. And then we can have a very civil conversation.
Gavriel: It sounds like there are two factors — first is the country they’re from, that it’s Africans involved in research, and the second is relatability, that’s they’re accessible and good communicators to the general population.
Bertha: And they’re basically the same thing. COVID has not been relatable to the African community except of course to countries with really high death rates. Africans are used to people dying — from Ebola and malaria and things like that, so to them this is just another thing that will come and pass. So you’re trying to sell them the idea, “No, we can make it so you’ll be healthy,” and it’s like, “Why? People die anyway. A fly will bite my kid and he’ll die; why do you think it’s not okay to die from COVID? Malaria, Ebola, measles and all the other things that have come and gone in Africa — what is special about COVID?” They think it’s God’s will. But I know that Africans love a good story. If you want to sell an African on something, bring a story.
Gavriel: What does that story look like?
Bertha: The story shouldn’t be a lie, but you don’t have to include all the details, and then they’re curious. You push for a story to create interest or be an eye-opener. Basically you just want them to ask questions, rather than you just ranting about something they don’t care for. I don’t have the time, but if 1Day Africa can hire a communications manager, we can have the best chapter ever. We are easy to relate to but we need to take the time and study the people around us to communicate very well.
Gavriel: What’s something you love about where you are? It can be anything — food, culture, friends. Tell me about where you live. I don’t know anything about it.
Bertha: Where I am right now is more challenging than where I am from. There are a lot more opportunities and mind-blowing adventures, and it’s the kind of person I am to have questions all the time and explore. It’s not as shielded as home, where you see the same faces every day. Here, it’s a new thing all the time. I’m happy both ways, because here, nobody really cares about what you’re doing. You have to be in a very intimate community to have people to check on you. I’ve been curious about a lot of things in life. I’m from a very tight-knit small community back home, I didn’t have the opportunity to explore and answer my questions, and I have the opportunity to do that here.
Gavriel: What’s the most interesting thing about Yaoundé?
Bertha: You know how in big cities generally, people speak the nation’s first language? In Yaoundé, it’s different. Every street has their language. Everyone has their own way of communicating. So you only speak French or English in commercial places. Once you’re in your own area, you talk in a particular patois. So when you move to Yaoundé, you have to either find people from back home or learn another language from where you decide to live.
Gavriel: What do you love about your hometown [Limbe]?
Bertha: Food, people, family, concern! I miss the culture, where someone says hi to you for no reason on the street, or offers to pay for your taxi ride for no reason. It’s very homey.
Gavriel: What are your interests and things you’re curious about?
Bertha: Initially I was studying to be a psychologist. That didn’t follow through but I’m excited about going back to school. I’m curious about traveling as well, exploring different parts of Africa mostly, and meeting new people. I always want to meet people. Strange, weird people!
Gavriel: So before we wrap up, is there anything else you wanted to say?
Bertha: No, I’m good. I think it’d be interesting to have this conversation with you on the other end!