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Giving Cameroonian women a voice

October 31, 2011

In the first photo, a Cameroonian mother is sitting on the ground against her house, nursing her baby with her chin in her hand and a despondent look on her face. In the second photo, the same woman wears a small smile and a look of relief. She is surrounded by colourful, cheerful family members. The photos represent the impact of the work of Royal Roads University alumnus Greg Spira.

The MA Professional Communication graduate spent two years in Cameroon as a volunteer monitoring and evaluation adviser with CUSO-VSO, an international development organization. Part of his job involved developing a program strategy for VSO Cameroon, which was informed by the research he did across the country. The result, Spira says, is a focused and holistic strategy to work with marginalized rural women to improve their ability to access and demand livelihood services, such as education, adult literacy and maternal health.

“My communication thumbprint was evident on the demand side: creating opportunities for these women to voice their perspectives and their issues, influence policymakers and make changes themselves as well,” Spira says as he reflects on his experience in School of Communication and Culture professor Michael Real’s office. Spira taught communication theory at Royal Roads for one year following his graduation and has kept close ties to the university.

“It all started here,” he says, referencing his MA thesis for which he won the 2008 Governor General’s Gold Medal for most outstanding thesis. The award-winning project explored the use of Photovoice – a community-driven research method that brings together photography and social change – in rural, indigenous communities in Bolivia.

“One of the things that impressed me so much about how Greg approached the Bolivia project was that he wasn’t just applying a cookie-cutter project, but really worked with the local people and modified as needed,” says Real, who keeps a photo from Spira’s thesis in his office.

In the far north of Cameroon, Spira gave vulnerable women the opportunity to speak out by launching a Photovoice pilot project. Project organizers gave cameras to community members so they could capture images that illustrate their vision of the past, present or future and allow them to explore issues of importance. The photos were discussed by the group, giving rise to ideas of how to better their community while assessing the impact of past or future projects. “You got not only a glimpse of the feel-good stories that an organization’s work does, but also where there are still gaps that can potentially be addressed,” Spira says.

The goal of the pilot project was to assess the impact of a VSO partner organization that provides care and support services to people infected or affected by HIV. When asked which photos stick out, Spira doesn’t hesitate.

The breastfeeding mother was six months pregnant when her husband died, Spira explains. At the time, she didn’t know why. When she tested positive for HIV, her family and the community abandoned her and she thought she would die as her husband had. There is a lack of understanding in the community about HIV/AIDS; some people think the disease doesn’t exist and many refuse to get tested. However, thanks to the work of the VSO partner organization, the woman’s family has been educated and has accepted her and her condition. The woman, too, has been educated and volunteers have helped her with her health care needs.

“The two photos are a success story. Did you generally feel like you were accomplishing something?” Real asks Spira.

This time, Spira hesitates.

“Looking back now, yes. I worked really hard over the two years. It was not like anything I expected,” says Spira, who suffered from e-coli, salmonella and two bouts of malaria.

More challenging?

“Yes. As Michael knows, I don’t let anything rest half done. I always want to stick my nose into everything, so I kept getting involved in organizational change initiatives and program quality improvement processes.”

Spira strongly believes in Photovoice as an effective tool to help better the lives of program beneficiaries, especially in some communities in Cameroon where there’s a culture of dependency and people are afraid to criticize because of the patronage-based, hierarchical system. In Cameroon, he built on his experience in Bolivia by developing strategies for involving beneficiaries in planning programs, reviewing the effectiveness of programs and being involved in the decision-making processes of the organizations that serve them.

“Methods that get people to be critically involved in analyzing what’s going on and figuring out the best path forward I think will help with overcoming challenges related to dependency thinking,” he says. “We used Photovoice as a keystone in how to get beneficiaries involved in a non-threatening, fun way. They describe a photo rather than an issue, so it’s less threatening.” 

After successfully completing three Photovoice pilot projects in northern Cameroon, Spira was granted Canadian International Development Agency funding to do another 16 projects, some of which are already underway. In addition to Photovoice, the projects involve other participatory research methods, such as focus groups and surveys. 

In addition to working with volunteers from all of VSO Cameroon’s partner organizations, Spira also worked with his wife, Caroline. A 2008 graduate of Royal Roads’ graduate certificate in executive coaching, Caroline worked on introducing a coaching culture to VSO and its partner organizations. She also did policy development for the organization and advised on livelihoods issues.

When the Spiras had time off from VSO, they didn’t rest. Instead, they travelled to Uganda for a month to work on another volunteer project, Villages Connected

Spira is currently looking for paying work in the field of monitoring and evaluation and says he and Caroline are prepared to go anywhere. “We enjoy the challenges of living and working overseas. We like the unexpected and the colour of life. It’s not where we are, it’s what we’re doing.”

Spira says his focus will remain on promoting organizational learning, listening to what beneficiaries of projects are saying and developing evaluation systems that go beyond crunching numbers for funders.

“We have to be keeping our eyes open for what we’re doing right, what we’re not doing right and looking for ways to make things more effective. That’s my career now. That is who I am.”