You might have noticed that Narba's name wasn't on the list of the women who came to the training, although she is one of the grain bank committee's presidents. The reason she couldn't be there was because her granddaughter died that week. And the reason that her granddaughter died was, to my eyes and my understanding, because of severe dehydration and starvation. It's difficult for me to write about this, and so I haven't written about it to anyone. I haven't written a single letter to anyone for this whole month, because I'm unsure of what words to use to describe what is going on in Faloa and Niger right now. I hate not telling you about it, because it's been part of every day of my life for weeks now. But I also hate telling you about it, because I don't think you will understand. That's not fair of me, so I'm going to try.
The big picture, which is easy to explain: By this time of year, people-- farmers, meaning villagers, meaning my people-- have been working their bodies, hard, for six months straight. They have used their bodies and nothing more than a few handmade hand tools to turn sand into fields of millet, sorghum, and beans; they have battled acres of weeds with their backs bent over in 120° heat, they have spent weeks harvesting giant bundles of heavy stalks of grain, they have clocked hundreds of miles on their feet that are either barefoot or in crappy flipflops, and for a month of this- all September- they did it without food or water, for Ramadan. As the doctors at four of the clinics and hospitals that I have visited in the last month have explained to me, by this time of year, nursing mothers' bodies are exhausted and broken, and they stop producing milk. Babies who weren't weaned yet get weaned abruptly, and babies who weren't ready to be weaned yet get weaned anyway. They are given more water than they would normally drink, which results in higher incidences of diarrhea. And that, for a baby, or a kid even, in this country, is close to a death sentence. I wouldn't have, couldn't have, believed it before coming here. But it's real, and it's been happening all around me this month, and I have never felt more helpless, devastated, or furious.
Narba's granddaughter, Foziya, was about 16 months old. When I left the village in early October to help with Peace Corps training, she had a fever and I put a damp cloth on her hot little body. When I returned at the end of the month, I didn't recognize her, except as a child that I could've seen on the news in a report about famine or war. By then I think she was not entirely conscious. She was just bones in a small, rigid shape on her mother's lap. I sat with her mom, Dela, and Narba, and the other women in the family in their hut- I knew they were there because that's what you do when you are waiting for a person to die. It was confusing and shocking and upsetting, and I didn't know what to do, or if I should do something, or if I could. I told Narba, please let me take her to the doctor, but Narba said that it was in God's hands. Foziya died in the evening, and the wake lasted for the next three days.
So that is why Narba couldn't come to the training. I sat at the wake in the mornings and all evening after the training was over each day. I am a part of this family, and I felt like it, and my presence was never questioned.
I'm not sure what else to tell you about, because Foziya's story is the first in what has become way too many children who have died in this village. I can't just list off these names like that's all they are, names. I don't want to do that. They're a lot more than names, they're babies that I am used to holding and carrying around when their moms are pulling water, they're babies that were learning to sit and walk and talk. It's so messed up, it's not fair, it's the cruelest thing in the world that this is true. My friend Mariama, who is lovely and clever and whose daughter Harira was born the week I moved here, is now walking around without her baby on her back, with her breasts leaking milk. Mariama is healthy- she wasn't weaning Harira and didn't have to, she had plenty of milk- but Harira got diarrhea, and even though Mariama took her to the clinic-- three different clinics, all hours of walking away- they couldn't help her. They didn't help her, and her beautiful baby, whose picture I've taken a hundred times, died in less than a week.
As this has all been happening, I've been struggling to understand it and working to find out what the options are for mothers- where can they take their babies, and what help can they expect to get? The two closest clinics have one person on staff at best, who's not usually there, and who just hands out oral rehydration salts like that's going to fix everything. The clinic in Tajae is better, but gets absolutely flooded with people. I've been there a lot lately-- I've started going with women, because they like it when I come, and I think it makes it easier for them to go. I started going a few days after Foziya died, because one of the kids who is closest to my heart started really going downhill. I know I've told you about him before-- Rahman, Zuera and Salla's son, another grandson of Narba's. He's the kid who always toddles up to me yelling 'habba!' and who squeals when I lift him high in the air.
Rahman is 18 months old, and was still nursing until October, when Zuera's milk dried up. Rahman started getting diarrhea, and throwing up, and he started to refuse to eat or drink. He'd been like this before I got back, and was losing weight and acting listless, limp. Zuera and I went to Tajae, where they gave him antibiotics, but he didn't get better. He lost his baby cheeks, his eyes started sinking farther and farther in his head, and the skin on his legs hung like paper. He just got worse and worse, so we went back. We went on a Wednesday, which is when an Irish NGO called Concern sets up at the clinic and administers a whole lot of help- all for malnourished kids. I'd never seen them in action before, and I was overwhelmed and grateful to the point of tears. I mean, you walk into this big cement building and it's full of hundreds of women holding on to their skinny babies, waiting in lines to have them weighed and measured, and then to get a week's supply of high calorie super-nutrient life-saving food. It takes courage to take your kid, you know? They want, like every mother, their child to be healthy. But it's still hard to get the guts to take them, because everyone sees you and sees your sick baby.
Zuera and I were told that Rahman was "broken", and that if he refused to eat the special food at that instant, they would write him a referral to the Concern Hospital in Tahoua. He wouldn't eat anything, and so Zuera and I returned home with him to ask for Salla's permission to take him to Tahoua that afternoon. And you know, this was really strange and disorienting for me, because I don't have authority over this child, or his parents, and if Salla didn't agree, Rahman wouldn't be going to the hospital. It was painful for Salla to decide- he was surrounded by all of the women in his family, yelling and watching, and there I am, terrified he's going to say no, and then he does, he says no. He said no, because he heard that if your child dies there, the hospital doesn't give you your child's body back. I was devastated, and Zuera started crying (people don't cry here), and the women went crazy...I told him, okay, let me call them and ask them if that is true, because if it is true, I understand. But he really didn't want me to call them, and he excused himself and consulted with some other men, and then he gave us permission.
Zuera, Rahman, and Narba ended up spending nine days at the Concern Hospital in Tahoua. The doctors showed them how to force feed him highly nutrified milk, and they were kept on a strict feeding schedule every hour. I visited them there twice, and got to see Rahman get better and better. Everyone in Foloa knew he was there, and constantly asked me if I had any news. When they finally got released, Rahman had his chubby cheeks back and even started smiling every once in a while. He'd been back for four days before I left to come in to Konni for Thanksgiving, and he seemed better each day. He still qualifies for the supplements given out in Tajae every Wednesday, so he and Zuera and I will keep going, along with the other five or so women from Foloa who have started going. Last week, a new mom joined us, Tahira, with her son Aziz. Going with them, and helping to connect them with doctors who can and will help them, makes me feel less helpless. I feel like I finally know where to go, and I'm getting to know the doctors. Best of all, women who felt helpless can see Rahman and how much better he is. And that is what really matters.