After a supper of rice, sauce, and banana, I am invited to join a Focus Group for women, chaired by the DPS, the Directrice Prefectorale de Santé, Dr Mariam Kankanlabe Diallo. I find her incredibly impressive. She seems wise and experienced, with deeply kind eyes. She commands respect in the local community because of her education. And she, like all women in the Mamou region, dresses in clothes and a headdress of brilliant colour. We are escorted away from the centre of the village, seated in a circle of benches behind some out-houses, sharing the darkness with the cows, the crickets, and the stars. We agree to touch on three subjects: washing, breast-feeding, and vaccinations. It takes a while for the women to trust us; it takes a while for them to want to talk. We have to make them feel they are in a sufficiently safe environment to air their concerns. The near pitch-black darkness adds to the anonymity.
Two things emerge that I find most surprising. The first is about breastfeeding. Some of the women tell us they didn’t know they were recommended to exclusively breastfeed for as long as possible, at least up to six months. Some tell us that they gave water to their infants water after a month or two, simply on the assumption that water cannot be bad for a child, but it can especially bad when there are also local problems with sanitation and the cleanliness of water. Others tried to give their child food days and weeks after birth. Some say they didn’t breastfeed at all. What surprises me is the general lack of education about maternal care. It is not at all the fault of these mothers, many of whom are young girls. It’s simply that they didn’t know what was best. Maternal care was open to interpretation.
The second surprise is a positive one. I ask about vaccination. I’m greeted by a unanimous hum of approval when the word is mentioned – so loud and affirmative that it makes me smile. Vaccinations were unilaterally made available to everyone. Every woman confessed that the health centre stocked all the necessary and appropriate vaccines, and nobody registered a single complaint. Their children were inoculated: BCG, Polio etc. all the bases were covered. While they were still talking amongst themselves Pauline reminded me that all the vaccinations in this region of the country are provided by Unicef. Every single one. They are not provided by the state.
This begins to illustrate the sensitive position of an organisation like Unicef must occupy in a country like Guinea. On a developmental level, in the long term, it’s counter productive for an organisation to come in and simply fix a problem, at a macro or micro level, because as soon as they leave the inhabitants of the country are left high and dry. Unicef has to work, crucially, alongside the authorities, (governmental and local) so that these communities can self-educate and self-sustain. Unicef workers are trusted, and they inspire trust and confidence. And yet the humanitarian imperative is to save lives and allow people to live with dignity. If Unicef did not make provision for vaccination, if they did not work with local communicators, if they did not fund and support health centres like the one at Saramoussaya, there would be many more children like those I saw at Donka.
Julien closes the meeting carefully. He thanks all the women for their honesty. “We can’t make any promises,” he says, “but we will endeavour to work with the authorities to help.”
In one day, I’ve seen so many different children, so many different mothers, in different communities, from so many different perspectives and angles. But I can see where Unicef is helping. In some cases it’s with policy and programming and financial support, in other cases with direct medical help, in other cases: just being there. Turning up to help. And coming back next time. To help again. A reassuring presence: constant, listening and loyal.
And so to bed. I put on my head-torch, spray myself from head to toe with Jungle Formula insect repellent, brush my teeth, say hello to the five huge spiders sharing a room with myself and Luke, slip into my mosquito net and close my eyes. There is a lot of loud activity from a cow and her friends outside the window. I like to think they are saying hello.