In our American lives, there comes an age when one finds it uncomfortable to acknowledge that one’s birthday has arrived, and that another year of life has gone by. We don’t like getting old; for some reason we find it embarrassing that we have put another year under our belts, that we are getting less like children every day. Fortunately, I’m not yet at that age, so I can freely talk about the fact that last weekend marked my 23rd birthday and I am now beginning my 24th year of life.
As you may guess, age is a bit of a different concept in Benin than it is in the States. To begin, many people don’t know how old they are. Some have a rough idea of when they were born, marked by significant events that happened in their community around that time (the year such and such president took power, or the year that there was a drought and all the crops died). Others may know the year but not the month, and those who know the month rarely know the precise day. Even for those who know their birthdays, I often wonder if it’s accurate, because I know that I create birthdays for children almost daily at the health center. When we are vaccinating, or when a kid comes in for a consultation, and the mother doesn’t know his birthday, she tells us as much as she knows, and I choose a day to write on his health card to be used as his birthday from then on. A lot of one-year olds in my area now share my birthday, and many 6-month olds share my brother’s in September. And it goes like this–my whim arbitrarily designating this important date (at least until the kid is going to enter school, at which time the parents may decide to forge a birth certificate with a younger age on it).
At any rate, birthdays here are not a big deal, probably because so few people are aware of theirs. Everybody knows that they are getting older every day. This is a given, and here, people have little need to count as exactly as we do in the States. I suppose that we keep track so carefully because age is tied to things such as when one can retire and Social Security and other such rights, but here, people simply work until they cannot any longer. Then they have a little bit of time of relaxation [or equally possible, illness] where their kids will take care of them before they die. The life expectancy in Benin is just under 60 years, so there isn’t a lot of old age to the extent that we think of it. People age, and they age quickly. Africa wears things out, and people are no exception. By the time a farmer reaches the age of 50 or so, he already looks like he might be 70 or 80. I sort of think that the “fete de Janvier” (celebration of new year’s) is observed almost as a collective birthday. That is the time when people stop, reflect, and congratulate themselves on surviving through another year. I think I didn’t blog about New Year’s because I was still writing about Christmas when January 1st passed, but it seems to be *the* big holiday in my region of Benin. The celebration lasts for a week or so, and mainly consists of people taking some very rare time off of working their fields, everyone cooking a lot of food, and people going around to visit each other.
All by way of saying, an individual’s birthday is not really reason to do anything differently in my town. So it’s not strange that I really did nothing out of the ordinary on my birthday. I actually told very few people that it was my birthday, just because it did not seem relevant. As it happened, March 24 fell in the middle of Benin’s nation-wide polio vaccination campaign, so I worked that day, even though it was Saturday. I’ve written a lot in passing about vaccination, and the preparation for vaccination, but I’ve never gotten around to really describing what the actual process of vaccinating is like. So to fill in that gap, here’s a summary of how I spent my birthday:
5:40AM: Wake up to my cell phone telling me (in French) that it is 5:40AM. Vaccination days are the only days I ever set an alarm, because we need to be on the road before most people are awake, meaning before it’s light out and before the roosters start crowing. Beating African farmers to leaving for the fields is no easy task. Now that I go to bed at like 10PM most nights, I’m more able to handle early morning things such as this, but I am still not what we would call a morning person, so this is slightly painful. I get dressed, wash up a little, slather on the sunscreen, leave Rafiki some food, grab my motorcycle helmet, and leave.
6:03: Arrive at the health center to find half the staff there while half are still at home. My vaccination partner (who we’ll call Francois) is not yet there, nor is the Major (the head nurse in charge of the health center). I am slightly annoyed, since it was they who told me to be there at six. Luckily, Francois lives right across from the health center, so I just pop over and wake him up with a knock on his door and a cheerful “bonjour! Je suis la!” (Good morning–I’m there! [Subtext: “Anytime you want to join me would be great!”])
6:15: I finish packing our portable cooler with ice packs and vaccines. Double check my bag to make sure we have the other necessary components of this vaccination campaign–sheets on which we keep track of how many children of which ages we have vaccinated, vitamin A capsules to give along with the vaccine, a marker to color the thumb of children who receive the vaccine. [The polio vaccine is given orally–you use an eye-dropper type thing to put two drops in every child’s mouth–so it requires a lot less equipment than other vaccinations. Normally we also have to bring syringes (three different types for the different vaccines and for mixing the vaccines), cotton, a sterile solution for cleaning the skin prior to injecting, and a safety box for used needles, so I appreciate the lightness of our supplies today.] Everything’s there–we’re good to go.
6:20: Francois comes back from getting gas (he had to wake up the man who attends to the table of empty wine bottles filled with gasoline, because he hadn’t yet set up shop), I mount his motorcycle, and we set off for our first destination–a largeish village about 30 minutes northeast of us. The sun is just beginning to rise; we’re on schedule. I wish I had made coffee before I left the house, but I also am appreciating the coolness of the air (won’t last long) and the way the land looks as the red road stretches out in front of us and snakes through fields of crops and trees off of which the morning fog is just beginning to rise. What a cool place to be.
6:40ish: We’re getting close to the village now and the road is getting narrower and bumpier. Francois is an excellent driver and I feel safe riding with him. He has gotten us to and from villages that are far more “in the bush” than this one without falling even once (the worst of which is one that is a solid hour away on windy, dirt roads that at times go through river beds, across huge slabs of rock, over expanses of deep sand–terrifying on a motorcycle–and/or become deeply rutted or washboarded, and we went there during the “easily accessible” time of the year…) so he has earned my trust. I bounce up and down on the back of the motorcycle and tightly grip the vaccination supplies that I’m in charge of holding for the journey.
6:45: Almost there. But “Attention!” (pronounced ‘ah-tahn-cee-own,’ meaning “watch out; careful’) there are stray branches sticking into the road at this point. I jerk my head to the side or duck to avoid getting smacked in the face (I’m wearing my helmet so it actually wouldn’t hurt, but it’s a reflex thing). Ah the quirks of traveling by motorcycle.
6:50ish: We roll into the village and see people up and about, making breakfast and washing up. People are used to seeing us by now, so they know we’re here for vaccination. The polio campaign is an especially vigorous one, because Benin, like many countries, is actually getting very close to eliminating polio altogether (last year they recorded no cases of polio; the year before that it was only 20). When the incidence gets this low, it becomes even more important to vaccinate every last child–even one case is one too many–and zero is actually a very attainable number. For this reason, the vaccination is to be done in a “door-to-door” manner, meaning that in lieu of setting up a fixed vaccination post and encouraging everyone to bring their children there, we will walk from house to house and ensure that all children under five in each household receive the vaccine. [Vaccines here are free; they are provided by a collection of international public health agencies and international aid, so really the only reason that a child would not be vaccinated is if the parents refuse. This happens occasionally, but generally people are pretty aware of the importance of vaccines and are eager to have their child benefit from them.] Then we will mark house with chalk, writing the number of children under five that live there, and the number that we vaccinated, and note if we need to come back.
7-10ish: We walk around the village and search for all the small children who live there. I get very good at saying a few select phrases in Fon: “Come here! Candy! Oh, it’s tasty. Sooooo tasty! Come here…” And then when the child is cornered, Francois and I go through a small routine that involves maneuvering the eyedropper device into the child’s mouth and making sure two drops of the vaccine enter the mouth (this is surprisingly difficult because children squirm), then cutting open the little capsules of vitamin A that were sent by a Canadian NGO along with the vaccines and squeezing the oily substance into the kid’s mouth (again, difficult–as much as you tell a kid that it’s like candy, they have a pretty good sense that it’s not true…though I think the stuff doesn’t taste too bad), then coloring in the nail on the left thumb with permanent marker so we can easily tell who we have already vaccinated (I learn how to say “hey, I’m going to give you a little bit of nail polish–oh, so pretty!” in Fon, too), and marking both the sheet and the door of the house.
When you’re part of a vaccinating team, you get kind of used to children running away screaming when they see you. Sometimes you actually have to chase them down, though usually the parents or other children will do that for you. Since the polio vaccine is an oral one and not a shot, the terror plays less of a role in the whole thing and it’s a more gentle process. Still, the highlight of my day is when we come across this group of small children playing in the dirt and most of them abruptly get up and leave as we approach, but one little girl is looking at me with these big brown eyes and isn’t moving. I smile and wave at her and she goes “zoom!” and crawls right at me and promptly gives my legs a huge hug and won’t let go. She’s adorable, and probably about a year old. I notice a bunch of white bumps all over her head; I think a fungal thing that affects some children around here, but I don’t think much of it. I realize later how much my perceptions are changing, because I wasn’t bothered at all by that, whereas when I first got here I remember seeing things like that and thinking “we should do something about that!” It’s interesting how quickly I’ve fallen into the habit of classifying things into “things that can kill a small child” and “things that probably won’t kill a small child.” Since the first category is pretty large in Africa, I choose to spend my energy working on those things, which means letting go of things that fall into the second category. In the States, since we’ve largely eliminated the things that we can in the first category, we spend time and energy on the second. You would never see a kid running around happily with a skin thing like that in the States, but here we don’t worry about it. And she was still totally adorable.
10:30: We have visited all the households in this village and vaccinated close to 200 children. We get back on the motorcycle and drive 45 minutes to another village where we’ll repeat the same process.
2ish: We arrive back in town, exhausted and hungry and hot and sweaty (the sun has been beating down for hours, and while normally one would avoid walking around in it, today we can’t avoid it). We put the remaining vaccines back in the fridge and go home to eat. We won’t be doing any more vaccinating today–we wouldn’t find the kids if we went to other villages, because they will have gone to the fields with their parents–so the only thing left to do is to fill out some paperwork and prepare for doing the same thing tomorrow. I go home and sleep deeply for about two hours, then go back to the health center to exchange recaps of the day with the other teams of vaccinators and prepare materials for tomorrow.
6ish: I leave the health center and go hang out with the zemidjans in their gazebo-type structure. This is somewhat of an evening routine for me. The zemis are right on my way home and are really fun people and enough of them speak French that we can communicate. And because we’re getting to be friends, they look out for me; it’s kind of like having a bunch of big brothers or cousins who are around all the time. It’s nice. And I often get free rides instead of having to walk places in the hot sun. That’s nice too.
7ish: One of them gives me a ride home, where I’m greeted by the kids in my concession family. They have been picking mangoes off the tree and they saved one for me. Best birthday present ever:) I talk to both sets of parents on the phone, and they each sing me a lovely version of “happy birthday,” which makes my day again. My concession family shares a plate of pate and sauce with me, for which I’m grateful because I am tired and don’t want to cook.
9ish: I sit out and talk to my concession family while looking at the stars and watching the goats move around the yard. I go to bed before ten so I can get up and repeat the whole thing the next day. Truly an excellent birthday.
N.B. Never fear, I also celebrated in more of an American way this weekend, in Savalou with about 12 other volunteers. My friend Ali graciously hosted and we made tacos (for some reason, this is a Peace Corps Benin tradition–taco nights–not exactly sure why, but they were very tasty) and drank beer and just hung out. It was a lot of fun. Until next time, CMK.