Sunday, 23 December 2012

Let's hear it for the babies!

Groningen. Enschede. Dogbo.

In Groningen, in one of the university buildings, hulks the multimillion-euro Accelerator Mass Spectrometer. Hannah was there, this week, working on an archaeological research project. In the bowels of the great monster slowly turns a carousel with some fifty polished metal cartridges. At the tip, each contains a minute amount of graphite. Every 45 minutes or so a new cartridge is subjected to many, many volts of electrical power, disintegrating the graphite molecules and hurtling its component nuclear particles through a massive horseshoe magnet and around the corner into an array of highly delicate sensors. And just as light is bent and separated by a prism into its various colours, so the isotopes of carbon separate from less to more heavy as they pass through the magnetic field. 12C, 13C, and finally 14C. Analysis of the proportions of these isotopes in the graphite sample offers an indication of its age. Cost per sample approximately €350. And that’s where Hannah comes in. The graphite, in this case, had been reduced from bone samples: first leaching away all the calcium and impurities, then by some modern-day alchemy transforming the remaining collagen into the cartridges’ load. The bone samples, in turn, had been harvested on Tell Sabi Abyad in Syria. With her colleagues, before Assad’s days turned sour, Hannah had uncovered graves from well before the time of Abraham. Among others – and now I am more or less getting to the point of this lengthy introduction – the grave of an infant prematurely born. Let’s say it was someone’s daughter. Further analysis of her bones indicated that she had been coaxed into drinking her mother’s milk, and that her struggle for life must have continued for up to two months. And then she died. Nameless to us, she was loved by her mother. That’s one of the things an archaeologist needs to deal with. This little stone-age girl is more than an object of study. She was someone’s baby. By the way she was laid to rest, carefully, comfortably, accompanied by a few ornaments and a little votive bowl: someone cared, tiny as she was. And opening her grave means getting to know her, and through her, her mother, her family, her culture. That she died matters. Just as much as it matters that your little baby lived. Or perhaps died.
In Enschede, starting last week, stands the Glass House, manifestation of ‘3FM Serious Request’. A popular Dutch radio station has hosted this initiative each Christmas for the past decade or so. Each time in a different city, three persons, BN-ers (‘Well-known Netherlanders’) from the entertainment industry, are locked into a glass studio. Visible in all but their most intimate moments to the Christmas-shopping public, unable to partake in pre-Christmas cheer, unable to go home to their loved ones, unable to eat-drink-and-be-merry. From the moment the door is locked behind them until their release on the night before Christmas, they will be there, taking their turn behind the microphones and soliciting donations for aid and development projects. A simple philosophy drives the initiative: Christmas is for giving. Not just to ourselves, for once, but to those who are less fortunate. Each year, ´Serious Request´ touches the hearts of more people, young and old. Millions of euro´s are brought to the Glass House or pledged online. This year, the object of the project is to counter needless deaths of Third World babies. `Let´s hear it for the babies´, is this year´s slogan. Prematurely born, but with every chance of surviving, given the necessary care. Or 2 months old and dehydrating because of diarrhoea, perfectly treatable for less than the price of a can of soda. Or a year old and struggling to gain weight because of ignorance and a wholly inadequate diet. Not everyone’s heart is touched. I read columns and blogs entitled: Why I won’t be giving for A Serious Request. A cynic to the left proclaims: the money would be better spent promoting birth control; overpopulation is what we should be fighting, not the death of babies who will only grow up in unremitting poverty. And a concerned Christian to the right: what humanistic hypocrisy, to be soliciting funds for relief on the one hand, while excluding God from aid programs and promoting abortion on the other. No doubt they’ve both got a point. But at Christmas time and always: when a baby dies it matters.
In Dogbo, babies die. And other babies live. We just spoke to Mariette, and she was very happy to say that little Joyce was doing much, much better. Yes, Mariette: we left the baby in her charge after its release from hospital two weeks ago, and our departure for the Netherlands, where we are spending time with family and friends. Little Joyce was eating and drinking, accepting her medication and her vitamins, and gaining weight by the day. Just this morning her father had re-appeared, shamefaced but relieved as well. He had spoken of the sickness and disappearing of his wife, of his own powerlessness, and of his joy that his baby had survived. Mariette had asked permission to keep the baby with her for the time being. Permission? he had said. It is I who should ask your permission before deciding anything concerning the child. She is with you and your ‘patron’, and now she is alive. It seems we have adopted a baby. I’m not sure what is to become of that, but one thing is certain. She matters.
Let’s hear it for the babies!

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Joyce - €14.50/kg


It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms….” Imagine a poverty-stricken country, population living from hand to mouth, and children being born in ever-growing numbers but in fact unprovided for. Could well be Benin. But this passage in fact refers to Ireland at the beginning of the 1700’s. So begins Swift’s Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from being a Burden to their Parents or Country and for Making them Beneficial to the Public.  His proposal is as ingenious as it is modest: I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout. The flesh of yearling children as an export product: think  of all the advantages!

How much is a year-old child worth? Joyce, in this case. We first met her about three weeks ago at the centre in Madjre, strapped to the back of her mother, one of the mentally ill there. Or so we thought. Not her mother at all. For it turns out that the father, background and domicile unknown, had come visiting a relative there, with Joyce in his arms. Joyce’s mother, he said, could not care for the child. And then he departed, leaving Joyce behind. I’m not sure how he managed that, but there she was. To all intents and purposes orphaned. Another mouth to feed, though  true, it is a very small one. Joyce must be about a year old, looking at her dentition and her motor skills; but at her four kilos hardly the size of a year-old. Sadly, in Benin that is hardly rare. Malnutrition, even for children who have not been abandoned, is rife.

This morning we saw her again, still strapped to the same back. Marijke was the first to spot it, and Mariette immediately agreed: Joyce looked like she was dying. Her fingers, which should be brown-black, were a pale pink; the whites of her eyes were whiter than they ought ever to be. And dull. Like her general skin tone. And the slack apathy of her face. Extreme anaemia, there could be no doubt. This girl needed hospitalization without delay, if she was to make it through another night. I phoned Raoul: we need to talk, I said. The baby is dying.

You should understand that there is no professional care at this centre. No-one trained in doing diagnoses. No nurse, psychiatric or otherwise. There is a lot of love and a lot of commitment, a few volunteers (mostly ex-patients) who help with the cooking and with supervision, and there are Raoul and his wife. The latter two decide on and dispense medication, assign tasks to volunteers and to patients, and try to keep the centre financially afloat. Not easy to do. We had arrived that morning around eleven o’clock. It wasn’t until I opened the children’s Bible to the story of Jesus’ multiplying of bread and fish, that we discovered how hand-to-mouth existence is. I asked, by way of introduction: Avez-vous bien manger? In Benin that question is a courtesy question, like  How are you?  in English. No-one expects to hear: Non, in response. But that is what I heard. No-one had eaten at all this morning. There was no diesel to run the flour mill. No corn flour, no boullie, no p√Ęte. No-one had eaten. Which means that Joyce hadn’t eaten either. And even if she had, there would have been little nutrition in it for her. All the love and commitment in the world doesn’t provide a malnourished little girl with what she really needs.

Raoul arrived 15 minute later, harried: he had been on his way from Azove to Lokossa, trying to ferret out where the funds for the centre – which had been wired to Ecobank – had ended up. Yes, he said, he knew the baby wasn’t doing well.  But everyone was hungry, and there wasn’t anyone who could look out for her better than the girl who was playing mother. I said: we’ll take her, but there’ll need to be some authorisation, won’t there? Do you have any papers saying who she is, or who is responsible for her? He looked at me as if I was speaking in tongues. No, he said. Just take her, if you will. I’ll find someone to go with you, and to stay with her at the hospital. (That bit didn’t surprise us: at the hospitals here the staff do not do more than strictly, strictly medical duties. Washing, cleaning, cooking: that’s what the family is for.) One of the kitchen volunteers was asked to go along. Time came to go: but not before Raoul and Mariette and Marijke had been able to almost convince the girl whose baby Joyce had been for the last few weeks that we weren’t taking her away forever.

We arrived at Gohomey: the hospital where Joyce would most be most likely to survive, Mariette was convinced. The hospital is run by Catholic sisters and is reputed to be clean and able to do blood tests and transfusions. The verandas were lined with mothers and fathers awaiting their turn. Mariette, very assertively, managed to negotiate a consultation well ahead of most in the line. Second, actually, right after a baby with extremely high temperature. The nurse did what nurses do: Joyce was temped, examined and a chart was opened. We were sent to another veranda with another door labelled laboratory. Where a very kind technician did very unkind things to Joyce, trying to extract sufficient blood from veins virtually impossible to find. We were all in tears by the time she succeeded.

The test results were ready 15 minutes later. Blood count almost off the bottom end of the scale. This baby needs a transfusion, right now, the doctor said. But we don’t have any blood. He shook his head. I do, I said. Same blood type: 0 positive. And if that’s not enough, Marijke has lots more… There was a lot of relieved joking on the veranda after that. A man we did not know offered blood of his own. No, told him, yovo blood is much stronger. Mine is what she gets… Another blood test followed, this time to verify that I was indeed 0 positive. And not long afterwards I was lying in an ancient recliner, watching myself fill a 400cc blood bag. Don’t forget to have some soft drink afterwards, I was told. And then the bag was detached, brought over to the other veranda, and Joyce was taken to the ward.

We stayed until the drip was regular, and then we left. The kitchen volunteer remained. Joyce was semiconscious, but there was no more we would do.

Tonight we went back. She was still attached to tubes, but now just receiving saline. She was sleeping. Her colour was amazingly normal. Fingers, eyes, lips. Joyce was back. All four kilos of her.

Some time later we were back with food. Which she refused to eat, incidentally. Because her right hand was still attached to the immobilizing board and the tubes. And her left hand: she never eats with that. And no one, no one else but Joyce herself gets to feed her face.

Back to my question: how much is a year-old child worth? Well, I don’t know that. But I know what she cost us today. A pint of blood. And FCFA 38.000 or €58,00 all-in: from syringes to analysis to hospitalisation to a bag full of medicines and vitamin solutions. That makes about €14,50/kg. A bargain.

(And that in times when aid to developing countries is being decimated… May I make a modest proposal?)