Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Culture of Crisis

We've all been there: the phone rings, you pick up, the person on the other end says "I have some bad news," and you brace yourself for what's coming next. Every terrible scenario flashes through your head and you remind yourself that no matter what, you can get through it. You've been here before.

Early Thursday morning, as we were leaving village for vaccination day in Zaffe, Daniel got a call that the Village Chief (CV) was involved in a horrible car accident. The first reports assumed all 6 passengers, Adourekoman's prized youth heading to Cotonou for university programs, and the driver (CV) were killed on impact. A shock wave reverberated through the community. Everyone was related to someone in that car. Mothers sobbed, children wept, but Daniel and I left to run vaccination day. The show must go on.

When we arrived in Zaffe, Daniel got another call. All the passengers were stable, having been successfully pulled through the wreckage of the car that was hit from the front and the side by passing trucks before rolling 50 meters and into a ditch. The driver remained in critical condition, but he was going to make it. Having been in that car before, I knew it was a miracle.

Despite the tragedy, but thankful for the improved reports from the hospital, Daniel and I continued with vaccinations. I gave a talk on complementary feeding, exclusive breastfeeding for children under 6 months, and how to maintain a nutritionally diverse diet for your family. Part of me was stalling, I didn't want to walk back into the crisis in village. But for some reason, I'm always the person rushing to the scene, spending time with the sick in the hospital, and comforting the family at the funeral of a loved one. With a grandmother who's calendar is filled with visits to nursing homes, shivas and funerals, always arriving with her infamous date nut bread, it must be in my blood.

The morning passed by and by one we were back in Adourekoman. Sabine, the CV's wife and one of my closest friends in village, was curled under a shade tree, phone close by, surrounded by a small crowd of women who were doing their best to pass the time. I did my best to express my apologies in broken Idaasha, and offered the sincerest prayer I could for this situation.

I spent much of the afternoon cleaning my house and preparing for a behavior change communication session for malaria, which was scheduled for 6 pm. At 5:30, I left the house, armed with a tattered mosquito net, repair kit and a pile of written materials. I found Daniel at the health center, buried under paperwork and a plethora of used rapid diagnosis tests for malaria. He was clearly too busy to come translate for me, so I set off to find another willing soul.

Next to the health center, at Sabine's house, the crowd had migrated. The fire was roaring as another local woman had come over to make a huge pot of pate. The kids were home from school and between the chaos of feeding and bathing them, it was unlikely I would find someone to accompany me to Camp Peulh. After I finally ran into Pauline, who walked with me to the Camp, we arrived there to learn that the women were unprepared and collecting water at the pump. We made our way back to village and I knew I had to sit with the women, play with the kids or do anything but hermit myself and avoid the crisis mode that had set in outside. I went home, made a heaping bowl of popcorn, grabbed my computer and went back to Sabine's.

The hungry crowd, stomachs unsettled by a day of nervous not-eating, devoured the popcorn. The kids and I huddled together to watch The Impossibles, one of the only PG movies I have available. The children, who had amassed to a group of about 30, huddled around the screen and were transported to a world of animation, heroes and superpowers. We spent the next 2 hours a world away.

I've dealt with a lot of different cultural scenarios since arriving in Benin. Most of the time, I'm surprised by how much I have to adapt to fit in with my community. But, in crisis mode, I felt at home. These people have become my family, and my heart aches with theirs.

The CV is doing better, still in the emergency department of the Abomey hospital. He makes progress every day and when I first wake up, I seek out the newest updates on his health.

Compassion is a human universal. We hurt and we heal. In the end, no matter where I am, I know that my neighbors are my community and we are stronger together. 

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