When she was a young girl, Leontine Sinda suffered a bout with malaria that nearly killed her. She spent her time off from school in Ehuet, a village in the mountains of Cameroon, with her grandmother. Ehuet was incredibly remote; getting fresh water for daily meals meant a trek down the mountain with a pail. If anyone fell ill, the nearest medical facility was 50 kilometers away—a trip that required three hours on foot before reaching a truck to drive the rest of the way. Sinda’s malaria caused her to go into shock and, with the paucity of medical treatment options, she barely survived. It became clear to her then just how lucky she had been to make it through her ordeal, and how few others shared her good fortune. “It was horrible,” Sinda recalls, “and though I was a child, I wondered, Why is it that this community is different? Why is it that they don’t have the facilities that you find in the city?” These questions burned within her and became the spark for her life’s work. “I had the thought, you know, We can do something for this community. And that was my main motivation to go and do medicine.”
After losing her grandmother to a mistreated case of pneumococcus, Sinda decided to specialize in the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases. She also started to think about the scope of her humanitarian goals. In 2006 she began the association Peer Educators Actions in Cameroon, traveling to remote villages and instructing young people on the dangers of unsafe sex, and on preventing the spread of diseases such as HIV and AIDS. However, Sinda soon found her position of strictly raising awareness too limiting. “While working with the association,” she said, “I found that there were so many communities having the same problems.” These issues—lack of access to clothing, education, and medical treatment; domestic violence and female oppression; and no knowledge of disease prevention—required something on a larger scale. “For me to solve the problems that I’m seeing,” she said, “I must come up with something bigger.”
“I had the thought, you know, We can do something for this community. And that was my main motivation to go and do medicine.”
In 2010, Sinda founded the St. Leonard Health and Research Foundation, a non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting and providing education, socio/economic inclusion, primary health care, human rights, and preventive approaches to infectious diseases and cancers, as well as reinforcing capacity building for healthcare workers in rural health centers in Cameroon and Africa. Three of St. Leonard’s branches—an Education branch, where a new generation of healthcare professionals are trained; a Medical Care branch, providing treatment to people from an outpatient medical clinic in Limbe; and a Research branch, which focuses on HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis treatment and prevention, malaria vaccines, and the treatment of other infectious diseases—allowed Sinda to fund and propel the Foundation’s fourth branch, the charity organization Humanitarians Without Borders.
Humanitarians Without Borders provides community outreach to remote and underserved populations in Cameroon. Through this organization, Sinda and her colleagues focus on empowering rural students to become healthcare professionals by integrating education, technology, and clinical opportunities. They also instituted a program to register birth certificates to children in rural communities—a requirement for secondary school admission, and a critical step toward breaking the cycle of poverty by eliminating illiteracy. Humanitarians Without Borders also established programs to promote and educate on gender equality, noting that harmful attitudes towards women impede peace by perpetuating injustice against half the population. The Foundation has ambitious goals, but Sinda is not discouraged. “Africa has so many challenges, but I don’t see those challenges as a hindrance to my mission. I see them as opportunities to bring the change that I want to see happen in my community.” Through her work, Sinda is realizing the desire that sparked in her as a little girl, to reach out to her community and make a difference.
“I must do something,” she emphasizes. “You don’t wait for people to come, you start and people can follow if they wish. You don’t force people.” She channels a well-known call to action, “We are the ones we are looking for. We bring the change that we want to see. You don’t wait for people from somewhere else to come and bring this change in your community when you have not done anything.”
“Africa has so many challenges, but I don’t see those challenges as a hindrance to my mission. I see them as opportunities to bring the change that I want to see happen in my community.”
On September 9th, 2017, decades-long tensions between the English- and French-speaking regions of Cameroon erupted into full-on warfare—a conflict called the Anglophone Crisis (also known as the Ambazonia War). The resulting strife threw an already struggling nation into further disarray, and the people most affected were those in remote and rural villages. Many people were internally displaced, and refugees from Central Africa and beyond were also flooding in due to catastrophic issues in their own countries. The crisis also directly hindered Sinda’s mission. Due to safety concerns, St. Leonard’s medical clinic in Limbe, which was initially available to patients 24 hours a day, now had to be closed at 6 PM. The crisis also caused most of Sinda’s medical trainees to flee, severely impacting her ability to do her work with Humanitarians Without Borders.
During a particularly dark moment, in July of 2018, everyone was forced to stay indoors. Locked in and lonely, Sinda was growing depressed. It was then that she happened upon something that would not only lift her spirits but also reignite what had sparked in her when she was just a little girl in Ehuet. “One day I have my tablet and I saw a post that said, Your friend has clicked ‘like’ to this group, the Idealist group. I said, Wow, let me see why this friend of mine has posted in this group.” After registering the St. Leonard Health and Research Foundation to the Idealist network, she came upon the description of Idealist’s mission. “The mission was going along the same lines of what I had in mind,” she remembers. “Doing good. Love. Generosity. Mutual respect. Your mission was in line with what I am doing.”
When Sinda discovered Idealist Days and the worldwide community that joined together to do good in the world, it reminded her why she began her mission all those years ago. “Idealist Day is like a catalyst in me to bring out the best of what I’ve been doing,” she says. “I’m doing it with so much passion, so much excitement. I’m so happy that day because it is a day that is reminding me, This is your mission. So you have to take it over. Continue and continue and continue. I’m happy that I’ve found a family—an idealist family, which is accompanying me.”
Emboldened by this sense of global community, Sinda began planning her own Idealist Day activities. On 7/7 she organized a seminar called On the Eradication of Neglected Tropical Diseases Through Prevention at St. Leonard’s headquarters in Limbe, instructing children on methods for avoiding dangerous parasites and diseases. On 8/8, Sinda and her colleagues educated women on reproductive health, infectious diseases, and domestic violence at their clinic. They also held free screenings for women to test for diabetes, hypertension, and HIV.
On 9/9, exactly one year after the Anglophone Crisis began, Sinda gathered a group on Wabane Bridge in Southwest Cameroon. The Idealist Call to Action for September was to hold meetups on bridges, and for Sinda this bridge meeting was especially meaningful. Wabane bridge, which Sinda called the Bridge for Peace, symbolized a desire for connection and community between the peoples of Cameroon torn apart by tribal conflict. What’s more, the lush greenery of medicinal plants surrounding the bridge highlighted not only Sinda’s particular mission as a clinician and researcher, but also the ways that medical outreach and the pursuit of peace go hand-in-hand. “The healing nature of these plants is to remind us that we cannot preach peace to people who are sick,” she says. “They need to be healed in their mind, body, and soul.”
Sinda continues her clinical and humanitarian work, planning educational events and medical screenings as well as clothing, medicine, and treatment drives on Idealist Days in even the most remote villages of Cameroon. “When I’m doing my humanitarian action,” she says, “I do it with all my mind, all my soul, I do it with all the passion that I can do it.” And though reaching some of these villages can be treacherous, Sinda remains undeterred. “I am not afraid. If I have to take a bike on a road and fall ten times before arriving, I go. Or if the bike slows me down, I will even go by foot up the mountain to give treatment to people. I don’t care. I go because I know that those people there, they have no hope. They have nothing.”
“But,” she adds, “even if there is one person that I can help, it means that I have found my purpose. I arrive in those communities, and I always tell them, there is hope. There is hope for a better tomorrow.”
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