I start to worry the week before the date penciled in on my calendar. She is four months old and the second set of vaccinations is late; I must go in. My baby daughter was six weeks old when the heat and thunderstorms hit; her health records were temporarily misplaced in the shuffling of a life started over, so I waited. It is time.
Three days to go, and my prayers become fervent and worried. I have been through this before. Her brothers were vaccinated on this continent too (one has the souvenir of a scarred shoulder from a tuberculosis vaccine), but still I am afraid. I chide myself and remember that she is healthy and that it is just a shot! But she is just a baby, and this is Africa. AIDS, hepatitis—will the needle be clean? Polio, tetanus—will the vaccine be effective?
Health care in the developing world is not for the faint of heart, but it is time. We go to vaccination day at the children’s clinic and I sit with her in the outdoor waiting area, fifty-some African mothers and I with our babies on our laps, some sitting on wood benches, some leaning against walls, others strolling across the street to grilled corn and peanut vendors’ tables, babies tied with African prints to their mothers’ backs. Their wait is long, four hours, maybe more, for routine vaccinations. We were called to this place, my husband and I, and God granted us strength to accept and to move ourselves from comfort to discomfort. But was I called here too? Here, to a clinic on the edge of the desert where children lay head to foot in little beds pushed up to the wall? Typhoid, cholera, dysentery, giardia—like phrases of a children’s rhyme, the names run through my mind. My suffering from fear of infections and tropical diseases is nothing compared to the suffering of the mothers sitting by the cribs against the walls.
There is shade, zinc roofing, and the waiting mothers on vaccination day nod with sweat and smiles on their faces. Some mothers’ babies are fat and smiling. Others lie thin and listless on their mothers’ laps from sickness begun but not yet serious enough for hospitalization. A few mothers who are interested greet me, and we talk. They pinch my daughter’s cheeks and shake her chubby hand with their fingers. I am glad. There is coughing. My muscles tighten and I wonder, Is she safe? Have they washed their hands?
Their wait is long, but my baby and I are white. We attract the attention of all those waiting and of the nurses’ aides who sell vaccination cards and take the weight of all these mothers’ babies. They nod to me. When they see that I hesitate, they take me by the arm to the front of the line. I am thankful; it is so hot, and I am afraid.
I sit on a wooden bench in a room of cement walls decorated with large paintings of children getting shots with four-inch needles. I am glad my daughter is too young to see and know. I see cobwebs in the corners, and the room smells of dust, and I worry about electricity and refrigeration and things that must keep a vaccine safe. A young man comes, the nurse; his name is Jean-Marie, and he is kind. Diptheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio. Here, I learn new names for old, deadly childhood diseases: diphterie, tetanos, coqueluche, poliomyelite. He acknowledges my fear and stands to the side so I can watch the needle come out from fresh wrapping. He washes his hands well and I wonder if every mother is treated the same. Perhaps, perhaps this is a good thing, being here. Perhaps I have encouraged a mother that what she is doing for her baby is important for us all, no matter our race or nationality. And maybe, just maybe, they have seen love, so that this simple yet complicated thing would be for His glory.
Jean-Marie is quick and his aim is good; she does not know that she has been poked until it is over. I breathe a prayer of thanks. It is done. My first great hurdle in our new life is behind, this old stone of ghastly possibilities that are so close but may never occur. We are new to this place, but not to the region; war took our old home in the rainforest, and we have a new home here. “You are brave,” people tell us, but they do not know. I walk to vaccination day not knowing if my feet will continue to move one in front of the other, my fear hanging about me like a fog. God has called us here. He has given us the strength to accept His call, so I move on, hanging on to Him. But no—for that I do not have the strength. It is He who is holding on to me.