A Youth-led Movement in Cameroon Takes to the Streets to Address Vaccine Hesitancy

by Abongdoh Maluyane Titus, Founder and CEO of Exponential

Exponential is a youth-led initiative that empowers young people in Cameroon through education and mentorship. In Cameroon, the rate of unemployment has increased by a staggering 0.4 percent between 2019 and 2020. Although the ongoing political crisis has negatively contributed to this scenario, it is also as a result of the depreciation of the quality of education offered to Cameroonian students. As such, students graduate with poor or no professional skills, and can neither get jobs, nor create them. Exponential was launched in July 2020 to offer a space for Cameroonian students and young professionals to improve their academic and career prospects through innovative educational practices and community engagement.

Abongdoh Maluyane Titus (right) with children doing outreach activities

Young people are admitted into Exponential after a careful review of their applications. The evaluation process seeks to understand the individual’s motivation and identify where they can be placed within the organization. Young people between the ages of 15 and 30 are invited to join our youth-led organization if they demonstrate a commitment to learning, connecting, and leading.

Despite a total of 85,414 cases of COVID-19 infections and over 1,368 deaths recorded between February 2020 and September 2021, Cameroonians remain skeptical about the existence of the virus. They often attribute its existence to either a hoax or media manipulations. These attitudes do not help the situation. Exponential saw the need to respond to the pandemic in a sustainable manner, by raising awareness on the virus and addressing skepticism related to it. This was done through door-to-door sensitization campaigns and the distribution of face masks. The second part of these campaigns, funded by Internews, targeted orphanages by raising awareness and debunking myths related to the pandemic. This effort contributed to curbing the rate of spread of the virus to a bare minimum today.

Youth activists in Cameroon
Members of the youth-led organization doing outreach. Image courtesy of Exponential

Exponential is built on values anchored in Personal and Career Development, Civic Engagement, and Community Impact. As such, it identifies challenges within local Cameroonian communities and collaborates with other stakeholders in finding solutions. Drug abuse in Cameroon is one of these challenges. The crisis in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, which has lasted for 5 years, has seen many students drop out of school, some take underpaid jobs, while others become frustrated and resort to juvenile delinquency. Many young Anglophone Cameroonians have started to consume drugs as a means of coping with this harsh reality and bleak prospects for their future.

According to an article published on the XINHUANET News in September 2018:

“Over one-fifth of Cameroonians have used hard drugs. Among the regular drug users, 60 percent are between 20 and 25 years old, and more than 12,000 young people under 15 are involved in the use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, according to Tchiroma, Cameroon’s Minister of Employment and Vocational Training, who blamed growing insecurity in the English-speaking part of Cameroon on drug consumption among youths.”

To address this crisis, Exponential – in collaboration with the Bamenda III local council – organized an event in August 2021 to educate young people within the Bamenda III municipality on the health and social dangers of drug consumption. The activities included talks, a case study, and a question-and-answer session between the participants and some medical students and professionals from Exponential. This one-day event attended by 110 young people will be followed by targeted social media campaigns and engagement through local radio stations.

Community discussions led by medical students within Exponential have highlighted the concerns of young adults in Cameroon about Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), such as Chlamydia and HIV, which are on the rise. Malaria is also a concern as it impacts children below the age of 12 years, with several cases diagnosed in hospitals every day. Exponential plans to launch a national health journalism network that trains young people to raise awareness about pressing health issues, collaborate with local and national media outlets to educate the public, and encourage to the Ministry of Health to take action that saves lives.

Image of youth sharing COVID-19 information with a woman in Cameroon.
People of all ages are fed information from dubious sources. Exponential debunks misconceptions and myths about vaccines.

With more knowledge and data on hand about COVID-19, young Cameroonians have come to acknowledge its existence of and have begun to embrace preventive measures. Skepticism about the virus is at bay. However, this is not the case with vaccines as myths abound and are relentless. Driven by conspiracy theories that circulate on social media, young Cameroonians are reluctant to take the COVID-19 vaccines provided by the Ministry of Public Health.

On a personal level, I have interacted with several young people who have sworn to never take the vaccines because of the information they were fed by sources they cannot truly defend. This is a problem that needs to be addressed, hopefully by the creation of a health journalism network that equips young reporters with the tools to understand and communicate the science.

Exponential is currently establishing clubs in secondary and high schools in rural areas to identify promising students and pair them with academic mentors. The clubs also seek to connect students to externship opportunities in local industries and companies where they will be able to gain hands-on experience and make better career decisions. In 5 years, we hope that our innovative thinking will result in improved academic experiences for students and increase their rate of employment in Cameroon.

Taking care of one’s health is a critical step in the personal and professional development of young people. As an organization, we are committed to improving ourselves: we strive to become better, to connect better, to learn better and to give more. This is the reason why I picked the name Exponential: a commitment to ever-increasing.