Beth Davidson – Every Child Deserves a Fifth Birthday

Five years is so close…but so far away.

Talking with her father last year, I discovered that Sadi had an ID card for Fusina and her twin sister Asana made shortly after they were born. He showed me the fading cards with a smile on his face and pointed to one – “Fusina is small.” He had Asana’s as well and I don’t know if I imagined it, but his face seemed to take on a somber tone. “Her twin,” he told me. “This is Asana.”

Asana had died a few months before I arrived at my post in August of 2009. It wasn’t until a few months after, when I started putting pieces of Dagbani (the language I speak) together to discover that the little girl with a penchant for running naked through our compound even had a sister. “Fever” is the only explanation I’ve ever received of Asana’s death and while I suspect malaria (it was mid-rainy season), I can’t be sure. The American in me rails at the thought of having a child die and not know the cause, but the time I’ve spent in Ghana has eased me against the questions. Children die. Teenagers die. Women and men of all ages – they die. Does it really matter when they’re gone why it happened? Is the loss tapered by the knowledge, or the pain any less real?

The pictures were small and browned with age and the dust that invades everything, even the sealed bag in which he’d so carefully tucked them away. They were in the corner of a laminated card, tiny peanuts captured in an unflattering light as both sets of black eyes stared back wildly.

They reminded me of the ID card my parents had of me – stuffed into a corduroy jacket (thanks, Mom), arms sticking out straight with fat rolls and dribble under my chin as my dad’s strong arms lifted me up…but not quite high enough to block his head and hands from the picture. I could see Sadi’s hands wrapped around the tiny rib cages of his twin daughters – his firstborn children – and could imagine the thoughts that could’ve been going through his mind.

“Twins – how am I going to take care of them? Keep them safe? Keep them healthy? How can I provide for them if the rain doesn’t come?” and maybe less dramatically, “I can’t believe God blessed me with two of them. These are my children – my beautiful daughters.”

They were beautiful. Fusina’s face was much the same – thin with small features, but big eyes that threaten to take over any expression. Asana’s was darker, rounder – she was obviously the fatter of the two and really looked nothing like Fusina, an odd fear I had should I ever see a picture of her – I just couldn’t imagine another girl looking like my Fusina (subsequently, that was the only picture of Asana I ever saw).

After going through that dingy plastic bag that held everything dear to them – medical records and immunization dates, stamped tags for when the house had been sprayed, receipts, tiny black-and-white pictures of grandparents as young people (amazing) – I finally found what I suspected they had, but wasn’t sure: birth records. Right on the front of their health booklet – Asana Abukari, 6th August 2007 & Fusina Abukari, 6th August 2007. I finally had a birth date.

At the time, Fusina was four years old. Her sister died when she was a year and a half from a ‘fever.’ What they have to remember her by is that ID card, the birth registry, and a tiny wooden doll Fusina carries around that’s supposed to represent her twin sister.

I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child – of losing multiple children, as Abibata” has. But for women here (and men), it’s a fact of life and they have to shoulder it like every other heavy load they rest upon their heads.

They dote on their babies like any American parents – they smile at them, kiss their ears, let them play with their hair and admire the strength of tiny grips on their fingers. They teach them how to sit up by propping them in ‘village Bumpos’ – a box with cloth stuffed inside around their torso, holding them in place. They stand them up on their laps and hold their arms high as their legs flail in their first attempts to walk. They wipe up poop with a grimace and take spittle on the shirt in stride – kids do that to you, I suppose, as I’d gotten particularly good at that before I left the village, too.

Mostly, they want what’s best for their children – they want them to grow up happy and healthy and with more opportunities than they had.

I think anyone, no matter what skin color, what language, what religion or political affiliation, can relate to that.

We all have our milestones for our kids – first words, first steps, first tooth, first missing tooth. First girlfriends or boyfriends, first broken hearts, first speeding tickets (I’m still sorry, Mom & Dad). Graduations, weddings, anniversaries, first grandkids and second. Life is celebrated the same on every continent (with maybe the exception of the speeding ticket – God help us if Alhassan ever sits behind a wheel)

It’s been a long time since anyone in the western world has considered reaching the age of five a milestone, but here it’s something special. The date might not be marked in a way that we recognize, but it’s a point when the mother can relax a little, breathe deeper and smile knowing that, barring any unforeseen tragedies or sicknesses out of the norm, her child is here to stay.

In the West, we’ve wiped out most diseases through testing and trials and even more testing, but there’s still an elusive killer – malaria. It’s responsible for one in every five deaths in African children. In fact, about eight children have died by the time you’ve reached this point in my post. Knowing that, when I visit my home village and see the throngs of kids on my porch, all waiting in hopes of an impromptu dance party with my phone, it’s hard not to think about which one could fall ill next, about which fever might be the one that does them in. It’s morbid, I know, and it’s not something I dwell on, but it’s never far from my mind.

In my time in my village, I’ve experienced insurmountable joy and beauty indescribable. But I’ve also seen enough death to last my lifetime and I’ve come to realize the importance of one of the greetings here – “how are your house people?” “they all have health” – and why it’s asked and answered with such fervor.

When I let my mind touch on the perils that are out there, malaria in particular, in regards to my kids, it makes my stomach turn and something go tight in my chest. I knew I would learn a lot when I stepped onto that plane in June of 2009, but some things were a surprise (lizards taste pretty good, snails do not, women can even pee standing up). Every late night phone call from my village holds just the tiniest edge of uncertainty, of trepidation, because the threat of sickness and death is so very real.

I never knew that kind of worry until I came here.

When people ask me when I’m coming home (sometimes with the unspoken ‘to start your real life’), I give them a vague answer because I really have no idea when that’ll happen. I just know that here I’ve found something worth working hard for, worth punching in and never punching out, something worth sweating and pushing for, something worth sacrificing air conditioning and cheese and washing machines and every other petty luxury I can think of.

I found it in a bunch of dirty, snot-covered kids who, when I first arrived in my village, I swore to another volunteer I’d never touch.

I found it in Alhassan, in Yushogu – I found it in Fusina.

She will be five in August. She deserves a fifth birthday – every child deserves a fifth birthday.

Alhassan, Yushogu, Paa Wuni Fadilla, Toiba, Abdalla, Laciba, Hediatu, Hawa, Awol and Zenab – all of those kids, every one of them, went from stages of toddling to running, from conception to birth and struggling to sit up while I lived in Bagurugu. They’re all something special, they’re going to grow up to be something even more special, and I will do anything I can to make sure they see that day.

Part of that is working to eradicate malaria. If it sounds like a big job, that’s because it is, so I can’t take much credit for it. The work I do is petty compared to vaccine trials and developing medicine, but it’s something. Every bed net I help distribute, every child I convince to wear long sleeves and pants in the evening, every mother I persuade to take her feverish child to the clinic – it’s something. And anything you do to join in on the fight against malaria is something, too.

I’ve heard the term ‘slactivism’ thrown around a lot lately and I’m kind of ho-hum about it. There’s a lot more people can do for certain issues, sure – but some things you just can’t be there for. I know not everyone can pack up and move overseas, join the Peace Corps, fight the good fight or whatever you want to call it – but I could and that’s why I did it.

You can call your Senators and let them know you’re against cutting foreign aid (which amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget – cut the armed forces marching bands first, Washington, and then tell us you don’t have enough money to send malaria drugs to struggling countries). You can put a can on the counter at Kroger asking for donations for bed nets – one net is less than $10 and can protect three or four people. You can do something.

My name is Bethany Davidson and I am a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana working to fight malaria by helping villages register to receive bed nets, making sure community health workers have the necessary training and tools to treat malaria on the ground and equipping other volunteers to do the same.

World Malaria Day is April 25th. What will you do to Stomp Out Malaria?

Visit my blog!

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