Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Brief article I wrote from my MSF trip to the Congo a little while ago...

...I don't think I ever shared this on here, but here's a brief article I wrote based on an interview I did with a family in Shamwana, DRC (Katanga province). It was translated and put onto the Dutch MSF websitehttp://www.artsenzondergrenzen.nl/over-ons/dossiers-en-themas/themadossiers/dossier-moeder-en-kindzorg/babyverhalen-uit-het-veld.aspx, but here is the English version. I am reminiscing about my trip there and just thought I'd share! The interview took place in their humble home and it was a very interesting, wonderful experience! This healthy baby is more the exception than the norm, unfortunately...

Bifani from the Democratic Republic of Congo

Throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is customary for people to seek the guidance and treatment of a traditional healer. The healer performs a range of rituals for a variety of illnesses in an effort to heal the ailing person. This health-seeking practice has partly to do with long-held local customs as well as the lack of quality medical facilities. In the experience of MSF staff throughout the country, the traditional healers’ remedies can have positive, but also negative effects.

MSF works in 2 hospitals in Shamwana and Dubie, in south-eastern Congo. There, we've seen that there is a custom which requires mothers who have just delivered a baby to wait to start breastfeeding their newborns until after a visit of a traditional healer. The traditional healer must first perform a small ritual before the breast milk is deemed ready to give to the baby.

However, the mother may have to wait a week or more until the traditional healer's visit, thus preventing the baby from receiving the special first breast milk (the colostrum) containing vital nutrients and antibodies a baby needs in its first days of life. As a result, and without the availability of milk formula, this widely practiced tradition has unfortunately led to the death of many newborns in the region.

However, newborn Bifani Kenna – who is named after a former MSF nurse who worked in the Shamwana hospital – is more fortunate. Her parents, Willy (38) and Hatti (25), recognize the importance of beginning breastfeeding immediately after a baby is born. Willy and Hatti have also tried to spread this information informally by talking to other mothers and families, but have met with resistance from other villagers who strongly value this particular custom with the traditional healer.

In order to provide health services to better meet the population’s needs, MSF is also beginning to address this paradox by adapting its programming. In Shamwana, and in other villages where there is a similar concern about some of the negative effects of the customary health-seeking practice, MSF is starting to engage with local traditional healers to establish a positive cooperation. One possible solution, for example, is bringing the traditional healers to the hospital immediately upon the birth of a child to perform the ritual for the breast milk. The challenge facing MSF staff is a delicate balancing act, but one, if achieved, can result in more healthy babies.

During my conversation with Willy and Hatti and as they proudly showed me their newborn Bifani, they asked me to share this significant issue with the wider public to raise awareness of some contradictions which exist between traditional customs and Western medicine, and the dilemmas which regularly occur as a result. Willy and Hatti wish more parents will be able to have a healthy baby like their Bifani

Melissa Ruggles

Melissa was in the Congo to accompany and support the MSF operational advisor in her work.

Willy and Hatti are both Congolese nationals who came to Shamwana from other parts of Katanga. Willy works for MSF in the Shamwana project as a Social Mobilizer. In addition to newborn Bifani, Willy and Hatti have 3 other healthy children, 2 boys and 1 other girl, and they hope to have at least 5 kids in total.