Esther and Aaron Krych's Elmina Journal
Tuesday: A day of rest in Elmina, Ghana, West Africa
Tuesdays are special days in Elmina. Since its earliest days, Elmina has been a fishing village, and on Tuesdays, the fishermen take a day of rest. No boats go out, no nets are filled. The town relaxes, and the women come to clinic. Tuesdays are Mother and Baby Health Visits, and mothers in various neighborhoods of Elmina are each assigned a Tuesday on which they are to report to the clinic with their baby.
The day would start at 8:00 a.m., when the mothers in bright cotton batiks or elegant appliqué dresses, would arrive with their infants and toddlers strapped to their backs. They would congregate together on a concrete patio, shaded by an old tin roof. As they arrived, they would each take a wooden bench to sit on from a nearby stack, and soon the area would be a sea of beautiful patterns. Once the patio was filled, the courtyard would erupt in song, as the women sang praises, clapped, and rocked the children on their backs.
Singing and Waiting
As the women sang, one of us would be inside setting up for vaccinations, and the other outside, preparing the weighing station. Each mother would come with her green child's Health Book (medical record), and a canvas sack with two holes for legs and a long canvas strap. One by one, the mothers would file up to the weighing table, and hand us the book, often carefully safeguarded by layers of newsprint cover and smelling of mothballs. She would then unstrap her child, place him in the weighing seat, and hang the bag from a large fish scale mounted from the ceiling. As quick as the experienced mothers were to laugh at new mothers gingerly who stepped away from their dangling infants, they were always as ready with kind arms to give an impromptu crash course in breastfeeding.
Once the mothers had passed the weighing station, they and their baby would come into the small room where we had set up a table with a cooler of vaccines, syringes and cotton balls. No gloves. We gulped, counted our lucky stars, and were very careful. BCG and Oral Polio Vaccine for the little ones, measles, diphtheria, tetanus and yellow fever for the older ones: one by one, the mothers would file through the line, smiling and laughing at the tentative white hands that tried to make a difference.
National Immunization Day
With our new proficiency at vaccines, the director at Elmina's Urban Health Clinic decided that we were now ready to tackle NID: Ghana's National Immunization Day, Round Two. The goal: to vaccinate every child against Polio. Aaron and I were ushered to a small patio where several nurses and other health centre workers were seated, talking and laughing loudly to one another in Fanti. Unsure of what we were doing there, much less if we were actually in the right place, we cautiously took two seats in the back. However, we obruni's (white people) were not to be hidden. Soon enough we were bombarded with new names, smiling faces and energetic handshakes. As people discussed our funny American names, "Hair-own" and "Es-tah," they decided to rename us properly - in Fanti. From then forward, we were "Brothah Kwesi" (Born on Sunday) and "Sistah Efua" (Born on Friday).
Generosity Beyond Compare
Despite the joyful welcome, what we saw was more than sobering. Many of the villages were so poor, they had no school for the children to attend. Those that had a school often didn't have books, so the children would go to school only when there were books to share. Even more than the schools, was the water source. Some of the villages had no well or even a borehole from which to draw fresh water. Others had the borehole, but were expected to pay, and were too poor to use it. So, instead, villagers drank from the muddy water holes they'd been using for years - the same holes they and their animals used for play and daily ablutions.
Village homes were dark, clay huts with thatched palm roofs. Despite the grilling humidity, the NID volunteers (villagers, themselves) would go from one home to the next carrying a small cooler with four ice packs, five vials of OPV and Vitamin A tablets to be distributed as well. Once a house had been visited and the children vaccinated, the volunteers would write "R2," and circle it, indicating that the house was finished and they had moved on to the next.
Witnessing the monumental national vaccination effort at work, Aaron and I saw how the ice packs melted by 9 a.m. and the vaccine spoiled by noon, how the volunteers didn't always understand the tallying, and how it was more tempting to rest in the shade than to grind along the dusty roads in search of every child. We saw children playing, open sores filled with flies. We saw grandparents with the behemoth legs of filariasis. We saw parents worn with hard labor, and we experienced the unconditional generosity beyond compare.