Lambert Mbom

About 50 leaders of some African immigrant communities within the DC metro area, gathered at the Crowne Plaza hotel, Silver Spring on Friday Dec. 9 and Saturday Dec. 10, 2011 for two days’ capacity building training jointly organized by the Office of Minority Health Resource Center and the African Cultural Resource Center (ACRC).

 ‘The objective of the workshop was to offer culturally appropriate tools and resources to African immigrant community leaders to better serve the needs of members of their community,” according to organizers.

 Organizational management and healthcare issues were the two pillars around which organizers developed a series of presentations. Anyone with passing acquaintance of African immigrant communities would attest that these two constitute two of the major headaches confronting them.

 On organizational management, the day began with input from Edwin Agbonyitor, a tax professional by training and the Executive Director of the newly created African Cultural Resource Center. He drilled participants on the ABCs of starting and running a not-for-profit also known as 501 © (3) in tax lingo.

 The African Cultural and Resource Center is a Maryland not-for profit and IRS approved tax exempt 501(c)(3) organization founded to provide culturally appropriate, social, economic, and health services to African immigrants, refugees, and Diaspora communities in the Washington DC metro area.

 Doris Dzameshie, Director of Operations & Strategies of ACRC, enlightened the group on “Business Process Re-engineering: A Project Management Approach for hometown associations.” Availing of business strategies, she focused her presentation on how to integrate these into management of the many hometown associations – alumni and cultural – that dart the US landscape.

 Margaret Korto, Senior Program Analyst at the Office of Minority Health Resource Center (OMHRC) schooled participants on the secrets of grant writing and how to win federal grants.

 “There are too many organizations seeking grants but do not have mastery of the ropes of the trade,” she said.

 For two days, she progressively discussed vital components of grant writing providing tips, tools and other materials to assist in grant writing efforts.

To complement her presentation, Marcey Guramatunhu served participants “Strategies for Fundraising and sustainability.” Highlights of her presentation included mistakes made by organizations in fund-raising which should be avoided and issues around sustainability. She laid emphasis on such issues as having a clear mission statement, establishing a reliable board of directors and presenting a report to donors after executing a project, among others.

 On Friday, Donald Moors, founder/managing partner of Moors Immigration and Dr William J Flynt, CEO of Community Clinics Inc. apprised trainees on how immigrants can get access to healthcare services both federally and within the Montgomery county.

Dr Flynt gave a detailed presentation on the services CCI offers, documentation needed to get access to these services and referrals to other organizations for services CCI does not offer.

 “Community Clinic, Inc., is a non-profit, community based healthcare agency serving people in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties who are uninsured or underinsured. CCI welcomes adults and children in need of primary care and WIC nutrition, education and food supplement services.”

 Approximately 15 percent of CCI’s patients are African immigrants.

The first half of Saturday’s agenda continued to focus on health issues. Korto identified diabetes, hepatitis B causing kidney diseases and HIV/AIDS as leading health issues of African immigrants in the U.S.

 “We are all worried about home. The people here have to be healthy so that they can help the people back home. People here are getting sick,” said Korto in defining the raison d’etre of the healthcare piece of the training.

 “Interestingly there are lots of Africans in the country with HIV diagnoses,” Korto said. “We just came back from Minnesota where we spoke to 28 HIV positive African Immigrants. I was so surprised and these are young people, older people, grand parents. This has become our country and so all the illness affecting everyone else is affecting the african community brutally.”

 This is why the Office of Minority Health Resource center designed a National African immigrant health project program. This provides capacity building for African organizations around the country and concentrates on HIV/AIDS. This training falls within this context and it is the first of its kind within the metro area.

 Ijeoma Otigbuo, Ph.d. Professor of microbiology at Montgomery County Community College and director of the Aids Awareness Resource Center at the same college presented the HIV/AIDS part of the training. In the first of her two-part presentation, Otigbuo focused on domestic violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS. From her rich treasury of personal experiences and anecdotes, she lambasted African men many of whose sexual habits and attitudes provide a fertile ground for the spread of HIV/AIDS.

 The second part concentrated on the disturbing phenomenon of stigma. Participants through a series of exercises and role plays identified stigma as propagated by the media, in school environments, in the market place, in hospitals and in the community.

 The third presentation on Saturday focused on nutrition and Africans. While participants enjoyed a sumptuous lunch, Adeline Assani Uva, medical nutrition consultant and registered dietitian, educated participants on the relation between diet, nutrition and diseases. Her presentation focused more on the prevention factors.

The question she sought to broach was, what can African immigrants do in their own way, such as dietary interventions, daily interventions merging African culture and African traditions and what they are faced with living in a different country in order to mitigate some of those disease conditions.

“Looking into diabetes, the statistics right now show that if you are going to be diabetic back home, when you do get into the United States, within five years your diabetes has actually worsened or you are now on a strong diabetes regimen,” said Assani. “What I want to focus on is what are the ABCs we need, to continue the behavior change where it is a true lifestyle change and making that part and parcel of our everyday living because curative healthcare dollars are drying up so that the burden has been put on us. What do we need to do as a community to start taking care of ourselves.”

She spent time then describing different dietary requirements for preventing non communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, obesity and also spent time on HIV/AIDS.

 In a post workshop chat with this reporter, Assani referenced a paradoxical reality of the African immigrant community.

 “We are a very knowledgeable people but what do we do with that knowledge. We are a very abstract people. We know what the problem is but how do we bring that problem into our homes and by doing this is how I am affected.”

 Assani proposed a two-pronged solution namely the individualization and personalization of knowledge and the secondly the reduction of portion sizes.

Health Education must begin with the individual making sure he/she is aware of how to prevent diseases.

“As we sit around dinner tables these should be deliberate conversations. What are you doing about hypertension in your family. Do you have obesity in your family? What are you doing about it? Have you heard so and so research going on? We need to start being deliberate about it. We are very good at going to funerals but having deliberate conversations about prevention we need to do a better job about that,” Assani said.

The problem is not African foods in and by themselves like many believe.

 The African diet in itself is a very sound diet. we have a good representation of foods, vegetables. What happens though is we have distortions as far as portions sizes. Remember in the african diet the majority of the calories come from the carbohydrates. Be it your potatoes, bananas, cassava, yams your starches. That is where most of the energy comes from. It makes sense that this would be the bulk of your plate.

 However, metabolically that is not how the body uses it. When you marry that with living in a country that is in every way different from your native country in your everyday living, your stresses, it is very different. You need to adapt to make sure that your caloric intake is matching what you need during a 24 hr period here. 

What happens is we still try to eat like we are back home but we are less mobile here. We are more sedentary. We drive to the bank, to work, to the hospital etc It is less walking. So we really need to start looking at quantity. Food in most cultures is a celebration. But within that celebration we can kill each other with food. We need to be very cognizant as to our portion sizes and the quantity.

It is better to eat five small meals a day than to sit down to one heavy meal, concluded Assani.

 The blend of health and organizational management might look odd but it turned out to be a perfect fit according to Kafui Doe, health education specialist and consultant for ACRC

 “It was a good mixture of business and health. There is a lot of stigma around HIV, domestic violence and so in a way it brought people in because may be someone came for capacity building but got something on HIV which they may not have expected. It is a unique way of doing things.” 

For Sombo Pujeh, Sexual health specialist and consultant for ACRC, the future is bright.

 “Capacity building is a daunting task but with a lot of passionate people such as those who turned out there is hope in upcoming years and generations and a lot of the issues we see in the community will go towards a positive trend.”