A fuzzy BBC World Service report recently informed me that Sierra Leone continues to have the worst rate of infant mortality in the world. More children die here before they are five years old than anywhere else, according to the UN. I am no authority on why our babies are dying but I can share a few stories. David is just three months old. His mother is Michaela, a beautiful nineteen year old girl who was at school in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city, when she got pregnant. The father did what men do – he ran away and denied all knowledge of mother and son. Without things like paternity tests shirking your responsibilities is a bus ride away. Michaela’s father died some time ago and so she came to Ngolala to be with her mother, a poor lady from the village. When I first met Michaela she proudly showed me and my friend, the much missed Auntie Adama, her baby saying, “Watch me fine pikin!” Some weeks later David was running a temperature and every day I went to the village he was the same. After talking to a nurse I organised to bring Michaela and David to COTN’s clinic, thinking that David would just need some small help to ease his fever. But, as my friend Butterscotch once said, “Things just get nasty here”. It turned out that malaria and an enlarged spleen meant that David needed a blood transfusion, something beyond his mother’s finances. But without this treatment David could be killed by the slightest little infection. We got the money, David got the blood and David is now safe and well again. The whole thing, including transport to the hospital, cost about 150,000 Leones. All that was needed was a little knowledge and 30 quid. But that is exactly what Michaela and so many other mothers like her don’t have. David is amongst the lucky ones I guess, he lives near an NGO with a working clinic. I am now working on trying to help his mother to get back to school. I pray that the second chances keep coming but this isn’t a place where people often enjoy such things.
A lady brought her baby to our clinic and our staff explained to her that the child had cerebral palsy. I could have cried as this mother talked about how the people in her village had told her to stop taking care of her son because he was a devil. Another woman came speeding in to our compound on a motorbike yesterday wailing with her baby in her arms. The child had been sick for a while but his mother had waited and waited until he got really sick before rushing him to our clinic at which point there was nothing we could do for them. They had to continue on their journey to the nearest hospital but those who looked closely at the baby were convinced he wouldn’t make it. Why had she waited so long? She didn’t have money to pay for treatment and just hoped that the boy would get better. A little knowledge. A little money.
We have a malnutrition clinic for kids under 5 as COTN tries to respond to Sierra Leone’s depressing statistics. When the children come, Auntie Agnes, our head nurse, has me take their pictures. The little kids stand there, often in tears brought on by the presence of the horrifyingly pale skinned photographer, completely naked apart from the little black juju cord their parents have tied around their waists in a desperate attempt to appeal to the spirit world to protect their child. Painful sores invariably cover their bottoms, their legs, their arms and their faces as the lack of nutrients sees their little bodies start to quite literally disintegrate. We had a case about a month ago of a boy a little older than we usually see, probably 8 or 9, come in a really pathetic state. What was remarkable to me was that he came with his sister, a girl who was in good health and who I knew from the youth camp we had when the interns were here. It was Mussu, still wearing Larish’s American Eagle top. They had explained that the brother had gone to stay with some relatives and this was the state in which he returned. His pictures were taken with him lying down as standing up was too painful for him.
And then the clinic goes about the business of building these little bodies back up again and teaching their mother’s how to take care of them despite their limited resources. That malnourishment is a problem in Sierra Leone is itself surely remarkable. This is a place where I have been struck by nature’s abundance, by how we gain the means of life as a by-product of the natural life around us. There is something about walking down a city street and seeing bananas growing out of the path that affects the way you think of food. But somehow, despite its climate and the richness of its soil, somewhere along the line Sierra Leone has lost the ability to feed itself.
A little orphaned boy who came to the clinic in this kind of malnourished state in June may actually be coming to stay in the home, the newest member of the COTN family here in Banta. The latest in a list of children whose stories have defied the typical narrative of where they live and instead enjoyed the transformation of that elusive, miraculous, second chance.