I once asked this lady I was interviewing what her definition of a sexy man was. She said that what she found sexiest was seeing him carry an infant. A grown man, with a beard and veins running down the back of his big hands, carrying an infant swaddled in a ball of clothing with only his pink helpless face peeking out. She said she just loved how men sit when they cradle an infant in their arms, as if they want to stand; straight back, shoulders squared out, a confused but conquering look on their faces, like they are carrying an unpredictable missile, but also a missile they wouldn’t mind getting blown up by. (Note: no relation to Bruno Mars’ grenade things).
She said she finds it sexy as hell when she’s in town and she sees those families going back home from a Sunday outing in Uhuru Park and the man is walking ahead with his small baby blacked out in his arms.
“And the wife is trailing behind, holding the hand of a small boy wearing a complete suit with a bowtie,” I chime in, “like he’s going for a fundraiser…”
“Yes, and he’s clutching a red balloon in the other hand…”
“And he’s happy because he ate ice-cream and chips and now he’s chewing gum as dessert,”
“Because gum also helps him with digestion – ”
“And also makes him look tough – “
“A tough boy with a balloon…”
“In a full suit…”
“On a Sunday…”
She likes that juxtaposition; of a grown man carrying an infant. It’s a cross-roads of sorts; one who’s already been on the road of life for tens of years and the other who hasn’t even set foot on the road. She likes how vulnerable the men look, tender, almost weakened by the affection that holding an infant brings. These are men who might work heavy machines during the day, or shout at a group of other men in a boardroom at lunch or have other men salute as they duck through entrances but when they carry a baby in their arms, they are diminished, reduced to something so bare, singular and transparent.
She finds that sexy.
Babies are generally sexy. But not when they are born. When they are born they are unsightly. They look like hamsters with their pink bruised faces and swollen eyes. They look hungover. But since children come from God, they are all “sweet,” aren’t they? Newborns don’t even look like anyone living. They look like ancestors. Or departed freedom fighters.
But then they start taking shape. Their cheeks fill out. Their eyes brighten. They start following the movements of your fingers. They flinch when you slam the door. They start kicking their legs in the air when they see you. They start eating their fingers. They start laughing, that infectious gurgling laughter that is better than any music ever made. And when they clutch your finger in their small fists you never want them to grow a day older.
But sometimes they don’t. They die.
And a dead child is the most life altering thing anyone can endure. My pal lost his first baby a few weeks after birth. We buried that little man at Lang’ata Cemetery. I remember how he stood by the grave that afternoon, watching his son go into the ground like he was watching it on television. Then he lost his mom. The other day I asked him a most insensitive question, I asked him which death altered him the most, his son’s or his mom’s. He said, “In a broader sense I think my son was a greater loss because when my mom left I had already become, I was an adult, I understood the cruelty of death. But with your child, a boy barely a month, it’s exactly the opposite. I haven’t stopped questioning why he died.”
Children just shouldn’t die but sometimes they die from falling off sofas and landing on their head as the maid warms their milk. Other times death sneaks into their cot and snuggles with them – a phenomenon so shockingly simple that the medics could only honor it with initials – SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Sometimes they start crying, and they get a fever and before a pediatrician can stick a thermometer in their anus, they die. Other times they die even before they have embodied their new name – before they have gone to their new homes. These deaths leave their toys, empty cots, booties and feeding bottles around as macabre torture equipment for the living parents. These deaths are unfathomable.
But then there are the deaths that shouldn’t take kids away. When they die from illness like pneumonia (number one killer of babies under 5 years), malaria or something viral, something that can be avoided by a simple vaccine.
Last week I found myself at the African Union in Ethiopia, seated in a roomful of men and women who go to work every day with the intention of saving children, which is the most unlikely room I could ever have thought I’d find myself in. I had received an email from Global Health Strategies in New York inviting me for the Ministerial Conference on Immunization in Africa. I thought it was a mistake because I don’t write about health but then the lady said, just go and have a look. If you stumble on something you like, write about it.
Here is the thing.
You haven’t been ennui until you have sat in a big plenary hall and listened to someone talk about “achieving immunization targets with the comprehensive effective vaccine management framework.” It gives you a small headache. But worse than that is someone rattling off figures on “increased routine immunization coverage across Africa for DTP3 – which you only realise later stands for Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis. DTP3 sounds like something that would cause a dog’s claws to fall off. The diseases killing children have such ominous names that the first time you write them even Word underlines them in fear. If DTP3 is bad, I wonder what DTP2 can do. This room I found myself in was full of bookies, advocates, technical experts, policy makers, donors and this strange breed of journalists who write about science and have the strangest conversations during tea time. (More on this later).
Another 500 not so exciting people were invited. They were from WHO, PATH, Save The Children, Speak Up Africa, Village Reach, Unicef, JSI, Gavi, USAID, UNICEF and governments all over Africa. When you stand in a room full of these guys you realise that the amount of intelligence, the collective brain matter in that space is so intense that it outweighs the room and numbs it. All they want to talk about is science, policy and DTP-3. And supply chain. You wonder if these guys ever do anything less academic, like whistle in the shower.
Don’t even talk about fashion. Fashion isn’t something they care about. Nobody wants to experiment with colours, not when there is a new vaccine to be produced. There are only five colours in the room; black, white, brown, grey and dull. So nobody will wear happy socks here, not when there is a child to be saved in Mali. Once in a while you will see a Nigerian in colourful flowing regalia contemplatively weaving through the crowd like he’s searching for his crown. The ladies are severe.
A Caucasian chap with big shoes who looked like a scientist or a doctor found me standing having lunch at an abandoned table outside the dining area (it was full) and he asked me, “je cherche des statistiques de recherche de la rougeole pour l’Afrique subsaharienne?” and he might as well have been speaking Meru to me, so I did what you would have done, I pointed at the Nigerian in the room.
Another thing I noticed is that these people speak in their own special language, a language that seemed to have been conceived in Peru. You can stand with a group of these chaps for five minutes and not get what they are saying. Theirs is an inelastic language expunged of apostrophes and parentheses. It’s stoic and cerebral and to understand it you have to say, “I’m sorry?” many times.
And nobody wants to utter the word “problem.” It seemed like the easiest way to get your license revoked is to utter the word “problem” There are no problems here, just challenges. Conversations at teatime are murmured gravely. Heads bowed in a circle. Nobody seemed to laugh freely. Laughing was seen as a weakness that shouldn’t be aired proudly even though they have many reasons to light up, I mean 4 out of 5 children in Africa now receive vital immunization. Polio has almost been run off the continent. Vaccine usage has gone up since 1990 and saved millions of children. But no. They won’t pat themselves on the back just yet because they are scientists and before they crack a smile they will travel to the farthest and remotest part of Africa to save a child. So they frown and huddle in corners murmuring with their spectacles precariously balanced at the tip of their noses while they peer at reports with graphs and pie-charts and they refuse to utter the word “problem”. It’s admirable but it’s also dry.
You know that expression “you hang with the wolves you learn to howl”? The journalists who write about science look like researchers themselves. Most of them at least. They are humourless and focused. All they want to talk about is the Abuja Declaration, Geneva Resolution and Lwanda Endorsement. They are keen and intelligent. They read journals and reels of global health information. And they don’t forget. I sat in a press conference and heard them ask questions, my goodness!
Journalists are known to be fun loving. I have been on numerous media trips abroad and normally after the day’s work is done, people hit the bar. There was no hitting a bar in Addis with these guys. I suspect they spent the evening poring over the day’s notes, listening to speeches again and making notes on their pads and then falling asleep on one side of the bed. That’s after praying for the good health of children. And abandoned animals.
I was even afraid to suggest to some that we catch pints after. They would probably have looked at me aghast and ask, “A pint? A PINT? You want to catch a PINT now? Do you know what percentage of children still die from measles?”
“Did you know that measles, rubella and neonatal tetanus have been eliminated in most parts of the world but still remain widespread in Africa?”
“And you still want to ‘catch a PINT!’ ”
Staring at my feet. “I just thought that…”
“I don’t think you thought this through, Mr…”
“You really didn’t think this through, Mr. Biko. Because if you had you wouldn’t want to catch a pint when our work here isn’t done!”
“It’s just a pint, Jesus, I’m not saying we steal vaccines!”
“We are not here to write about popular culture or the architecture of hotel establishments or pool attendants. This is not some trip where you sip cocktails at sundowners and ask what cheese is in the bread. This is about children….CHILDREN, Biko! This is about getting them immunized. This is about life and death and we are here to beat death, not catch PINTS!”
“OK, don’t spit it, just say it. I get it, death to diseases. People should take their kids to be immunized. No pints. Pints are bad. I think I will just go up to my room now.”
“You do that! Go watch Movie Magic! Go admire Clooney’s chin. We will be here, saving our children from DISEASES!!”
Suffice it to say I didn’t dare ask anyone to go catch pints. I spent time with Mercy from the Standard Newspaper and Ochieng from Sci.Dev.net, the only people who seemed to have a smile left in them.
Of course I’m envious of these people. This is all about envy because while I write about healthy smoothies, these people are doing more purposeful things with their talent and with impact you can quantify. They are saving children. Or writing about children who are saved and children who need to be saved or about issues that influence policy.
If you are going to take anything from this piece it’s only one thing; take your child to be immunized. OK, maybe two things; we can save children from DTP 3, pneumonia and still have pints. Surely.
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