Two mothers queue with their children during the vaccination campaign in Bossangoa.
The group that came to Bossangoa is a relatively large one. Apart from myself and other UNICEF colleagues from the Bangui office, three journalists and a photographer from France – accompanied by a colleague from the French National Committee – have also joined the convoy. Their purpose is to witness part of the vaccination campaign that will be carried out in and around the village in the next few days, which is supported by UNICEF with partners.
Bossangoa has a total of 50.000 inhabitants and very little infrastructure. Due to years of conflict, most houses have been destroyed and essential basic services are lacking, including health. Issues such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and waterborne diseases are ongoing threats as well as malnutrition and polio. Maternal mortality in the area is a growing problem and most health clinics in the Ouham prefecture lack trained staff and sufficient medical doctors. “Just to give you an example, 80% of people who come to help women during labour in this province are not trained to do so, which of course increases the risk of complications and jeopardizes the well-being of the mother and the baby,” explains Pierre Signi, UNICEF's Chief of Health who also joined the delegation to Bossangoa.
After waking up quite early in the morning we went to the main health clinic in the village, where the vaccination campaign was taking place. Mothers from other communities in the area walked several kilometres to participate and make sure their children are immunized against polio, hepatitis B and tetanus – among other diseases.
I wasn’t sure what a vaccination campaign in Africa would look like but what I saw today certainly surprised me. Since seven in the morning, women were dancing and chanting outside the clinic and making sure their voices and messages were heard. As the hours passed, more people started to arrive and soon enough it was difficult to move around. Quite a party I must say.
A street play started just before ten in the morning and simulated a child being immunized. More singing and dancing followed and I found myself completely involved by the sound of the drums and the energy coming from these women’s voices. After an hour or so, mothers and their children started queuing for the vaccines and forming a unique block of colourful clothes and hopeful eyes that truly inspired me.
12-year-old Ornela Biro holds her brother’s vaccination card in her mouth during the campaign in Bossangoa.
While I attentively observed these events, a girl caught my attention in the midst of a multitude of faces. She was holding a vaccination card in her mouth and was looking at me with suspicion. Since I was completely immersed in the amazing atmosphere, I decided to try and communicate with her. With the help of our UNICEF colleague Anicet Damado, who is a local and speaks Sango, I managed to get her name and a bit of her story.
“I came from a faraway village to vaccinate my brother against polio. He is only one year old and I want him to be healthy and alive. I would walk even more if I had to because his health is more important than my feet,” said 12-year-old Ornela Biro. Her objectivity and truthfulness are something I will carry from this mission.
In the late afternoon, we returned to the guest-house downtown in Bossangoa to have dinner and talk about the successful events of the day. Everyone was pleased with how involved and participative the communities were and there was an overall sense of hope hovering in the air. However, one thriving event doesn’t erase the reality of the Central African Republic, where infant mortality rates are currently at 112 per 1,000 births.
As we finished our meal, one of our UNICEF colleagues from the township sparked into the living room to alert us that a woman was going into labour in the maternity ward, at the same health clinic where we witnessed hundreds of children being vaccinated earlier on. As we arrived, the doctor was trying to take the baby out but couldn’t manage, since he was not in the right position.The mother, 39-year-old Nicole Dongomboye, from Boro, a neighbouring village, was clearly in pain. After some effort, the little baby boy came out to the world only to breathe for a couple of minutes. Since the labour was so complicated, the baby needed additional oxygen, which couldn’t be provided by the clinic. After trying to save the boy’s life with emergency interventions, the doctor said he didn’t make it.
Reality check took its toll on us again and what so far had been a happy day ended in pure sadness and an overall feeling of helplessness. On my true first day in the Central African Republic, my mind and heart went through such a cocktail of emotions that, quite frankly, I can’t really put into words.