On the Banio Lagoon in the far southwestern corner of Gabon, the Mayumba National Park outreach team joined Mayumba’s new doctor, Dr. Roland Lama, and a handful of nurses from the Mayumba Medical Center to participate in the integrated health campaign. The team set out to vaccinate and give bed nets to all of the kids under five in the villages and fishing camps dotted along the banks of the lagoon from Mayumba to Malembe. When we arrived in the villages, we would usually beach the boat on the shore of the lagoon and take our supplies into the center of a village, where mothers and fathers would gather with their small children to participate in this integrated campaign.
In some of the smaller fishing camps, the lagoon was too shallow to beach the boat, so villagers paddled out with their children in hand-carved dugout canoes and we vaccinated them right there on the water. We had to be careful to keep a life-vest in between the canoe’s tip and the inflatable sides of our boat, while keeping the boats still enough so that the doctor could give the shot safely. In one village, they used the narrow canoe like a bridge between our boat and the shore, and it was quite poignant to see the brave little kids gathering up the courage to “walk the plank” all alone to get their shot.
I brought along a couple of puppets and a stuffed sea turtle toy from our educational supply room to distract the kids from the needle – sometimes they toys worked and sometimes they didn’t… Once Dr. Lama even blamed the shot on the turtle toy, to my loud protestation, “But I’ve worked so hard to get these kids to think of sea turtles as their friends!” (Mayumba is home to the most important population of nesting leatherback turtles in Africa, but their conservation is challenged by the fact that their eggs are collected by villagers for consumption and sale.)
The most memorable village was the last one we visited: Pila-koumbi, where there were only six kids. A regular band of stoics, the first five braved their shots without so much as a whimper. But then came Samuel. Oh, Samuel. What a darling. He started screaming when there were still two kids in front of him. Then when he finally got to the hot seat (i.e.: my lap) it took, I kid you not, THE WHOLE VILLAGE to hold him down. Mamas, papas, aunties, uncles, nurses, the boat pilot, the doctor, and me. For a five year-old, he had the strength of Hercules. And of course after the shot he acted like it was no big deal.
In the meantime, two other teams covered the villages on the road between Mayumba and Malounga. Another team stayed at the Mayumba hospital and vaccinated and gave nets to the kids in town, and yet another team visited the villages and fishing camps in the upper half of the lagoon (Rina Nzala to Ndindi). In just four days, this campaign made a difference in the lives of more than a thousand children in the Mayumba area, protecting them against malaria, measles and intestinal parasites, and making them more resistant to illnesses by giving them a dose of vitamin A.
In addition to making an important impact on the local children’s health, this campaign has been a wonderful development for Mayumba National Park’s outreach project. Meeting Mayumba’s new doctor was a great experience. He was really impressed with all of the population data the outreach team had gathered for the integrated health campaign, and it looks like it’s going to turn into a very fruitful partnership. While we were in the villages, the doctor said he’d like to do visits once or twice a month, which is something I’ve been hoping for since we began touring the villages with our education program nearly three years ago. The park doesn’t have an operations budget for village visits this year so it would be wonderful if we could partner with the Mayumba hospital: i.e. we provide the boat and our team’s enthusiastic educational talents, and the doctor provides the fuel and the medical expertise. So often when visiting the villages on our monthly education tours, I’ve been frustrated by the fact that so many of the villagers ask me for medical advice and I can’t do anything to help them. Healthcare is definitely one of the most pressing needs in this area, and I’m thrilled that we were able, and will hopefully continue, to play a part in changing it for the better.
Visit www.mayumbanationalpark.com and click on the “new this month” icon for updates on Mayumba National Park’s community outreach and research projects.