On 25 August 2020, after four years without a single case, the African region was certified free of wild polio virus.
In 1994, a few days after I arrived in the border town of Nimule in South Sudan, I woke in the night to a bone-chilling cry. It reminded me of an Irish caoineadh, a keening for the dead. In the morning I heard that a baby had died of measles. I was stunned. I knew, from book-learning, that measles can damage the nerves, the eyes, the ears, the brain. I knew in my head that measles can be fatal, but in my heart I still thought of it as a benign childhood disease.
The epidemic raged through the small town, taking the children who were weak, malnourished, immuno-compromised. Night after night I heard the songs of grief – five children dead, still more facing lifelong disability – and then silence. The epidemic had burned itself out.
I was in Nimule to train community health workers, and to help with a programme of immunisation. With a team of South Sudanese and Kenyan health workers, I visited local villages and camps. Everywhere we went we offered immunisation against diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, tuberculosis and polio.
I met a young woman in one of the villages. She held her baby to her breast, in a wrap made out of a food sack. I asked how old her baby was. One week, she said. I asked if I could see. She unfolded the wrap and showed me her child. I can’t remember if it was a boy or a girl – I can’t remember the young woman’s name – I only remember her grace, her weathered hand holding her child, the newborn’s sleeping perfection. I asked the young woman if I could take a photograph of her baby. She said yes.
In 1994 an estimated 75,000 children across Africa were paralysed for life by the polio virus. Thousands of those children died when the virus paralysed their breathing muscles. Nelson Mandela, the recently elected president of South Africa, refused to accept this ongoing tragedy. “When people are determined,” he said, “they can overcome anything.” In 1996, in partnership with Rotary International, Mandela launched the “Kick Polio Out of Africa” campaign. Footballs with the slogan showed up everywhere – in stadiums, in school yards, on dusty soccer pitches. Communities, parents, health workers, volunteers, churches, mosques, governments, donors – they all came together, united by one aim – to immunise every child on the continent against this crippling disease.
On 25 August 2020, after four years without a single case, the 47 countries in the Africa region of the World Health Organisation were certified free of the wild polio virus. Today, because of the committed work of thousands of health workers and volunteers, more than 18 million people are able to walk, people who would otherwise have been paralysed by the virus.
But the fight against polio in Africa isn’t over yet. In Ireland, children are given an injectable vaccine that contains a dead form of the virus. This injectable form is expensive. Less well-off countries have to use an oral vaccine which contains an weakened form of the virus. In very rare circumstances this weakened virus can itself cause polio.
And so, although a huge milestone has been reached, immunisation and outbreak surveillance continue, and efforts are underway to make the injectable form of the virus available to everyone, everywhere. The journey continues, until the day when polio, like smallpox, is completely eradicated from the face of the earth.
That photo I took of the mother and her newborn has stayed with me over the years. I keep it close, on the door of my fridge, tucked into a diary, pinned to a corkboard.
I imagine this child grown to adulthood – I like that I don’t know whether it’s a girl or a boy – not knowing increases my sense of the possible lives this child may have led. I imagine that the infant in the photograph is a parent now, with children of their own. I imagine a baby, grandchild to the mother in the photograph, born into a world that is entirely free from the threat of polio.
Excellent opportunity for anyone in the Leitrim / Fermanagh region who wants to learn the skills of visual storytelling, while exploring the political, personal, real, imagined and socially-distanced borders that impact on our lives.
This 12 week series of free, online workshops is hosted by the Glens Centre/Across the Lines, and facilitated by writer Monica Corish and visual artist Rachel Webb. Full details, including how to book, at http://www.facebook.com/events/414642819525558
My creative-nonfiction piece Dobhar Chúhas been published in Trasna, a literary journal / blog originating from Lowell, Massachusetts. Many thanks to Margaret O’Brien for offering me the opportunity to submit work to Trasna, and to Jeannie Judge for writing a wonderful introduction.
Edited by Christine O’Connor, Jeannie Judge and Margaret O’Brien, Trasna explores the well-traveled route between Lowell and Ireland, introducing Irish writers to an American readership. All pieces will have a bio and links to the writers’ works. Trasna will be seeking and promoting new, emerging, and established Irish writers. There will also be a focus on Irish traditions and customs that have been lost to time or to an ocean crossing.
If, like me, you’re worried about the future of democracy in the US, please encourage your American friends overseas to vote with Federal Write-in Absentee Ballots. It’s a positive action that we can all take.
I’ve been making phone calls on behalf of the Democrats Abroad organisation, urging Americans who live around the world to vote in the 2020 General Election. Some nine million US citizens live outside the country, and six-and-a-half million are registered voters. In 2016, however, only one million of us voted.
Because many countries have slow, overloaded postal systems, overseas voters can use a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot that can be downloaded from www.votefromabroad.org/fwab. Now that the US postal system has also been slowed down and overloaded, we’re urging overseas voters to download their ballots now, write in their choices and post their votes as soon as possible.
I’ve been leading Amherst Method writing groups since 2008 – in arts venues, in community centres, in my local library, and from the sitting room of my house in north Leitrim. In late March 2020, shortly after lockdown was announced, we left my sitting-room and entered into the Zoom-room.
The first few sessions were challenging. Together we learned a new and unfamiliar technology; we learned how to function as a group in a virtual space; we learned how to be spontaneous, while also being respectful of each other’s voices.
Some things stayed the same. As before, people gathered once a fortnight to write together in a safe and inspiring environment, based on the Amherst Method guidelines. At each session I offered a prompt and invited the group to write in response. Silence fell as words poured onto the page, for 10, 20, 30 minutes. If someone got stuck I met them one-to-one in a private “breakout room”, to help them find their flow again.
As before, I invited people to read what they had written; the group practised the skill of “close listening” – a vital skill for every writer; and those who chose to read received positive feedback that helped them develop their voices. People wrote about everything under the sun in these sessions, including the minuscule virus that had upended their lives. One person wrote the first chapter of a witty Zoom-room murder mystery…
Sometimes a video connection broke down, sometimes the audio was glitchy – in rural Ireland strong broadband is a gift, not a given. The disadvantages of writing together online are obvious: you don’t get to meet your fellow participants in the flesh; you can’t read their body language or hear their small gasps of admiration as you read your work; you don’t get to chat one-to-one during the break.
But there are advantages. You can join in from anywhere in the world. And you don’t have to get into your car on a dark, blustery winter’s night to drive to my sitting-room in north Leitrim.