12 August 2014

When giving up is not an option

Villagers helping Susan with weighing the babies before 
vaccination. © UNICEF Pacific./2014/Thakkar
Susan Wokeke is a 30-year old nurse in the village health center of Big Bay Bush on Santo Island (one of Vanuatu’s 83 islands). Fresh out of nursing college, she was posted here at the tender age of 20. With a heart full of aspirations, she wanted to make a difference in the lives of the people here, reach out to them and help them with their health concerns. She soon realised that it was not going to be easy at all.

To begin with, she had to deal with the dire state of the health centre. The building was derelict and surrounded with huge weeds and bushes making it exceptionally difficult to find and/or access. She took matters into her own hands and, with whatever little she saved, she hired young boys in the villages around the health centre to clean up the area. Through the years, she has ensured that the building itself and its surroundings are maintained well.

Then, there was the issue of logistics. Big Bay Bush is a three-hour drive from Luganville - the closest town with the medical supplies she needs on a regular basis. While the duration does not seem too long, most of this drive is through a difficult terrain that requires a 4-wheel drive on unpaved paths crossing mountains and rivers - dangerous endeavour especially in the rainy season.

Finally, the most difficult of all challenges, as she says, is the actual practice of medicine itself. Many of the villages surrounding this health centre follow the indigenous traditional way of Ni-Vanuatu life. They are completely disconnected from everything “new” and this includes something as old as electricity. People here prefer seeing a traditional healer to treat any sickness. 

Rivers that need to be crossed to pick supplies from Luganville.
© UNICEF Pacific./2014/Thakkar
While Susan is Ni-Van, she is not from this area. She was aware that people in some parts of her country followed this way of life, passionately and whole-heartedly believing in traditional healers with absolutely no interest or faith in modern medicine. As a young woman, she found herself struggling with convincing people that although she knows nothing about traditional medicine, she is fully capable of helping them heal. Her words were usually met with skepticism. People would come to see her only when all else failed, which was often already too late. This made it even harder to convince them. 

At one point, absolutely dejected and hopeless, she was ready to pack her bags and leave. And that is when she realised, as hard as it was to stay, it was harder to give up and leave. She had to breakthrough to these people; she had to earn their trust one person at a time, one village at a time. 

It took her ten years of relentlessly educating the people of this area about her work and her intent. Here she is today with the entire village gathered around her, intently listening to her talk about the importance of vaccination. With only 29% of Vanuatu’s children fully immunised, this is an issue of grave concern to people like Susan and to organisations like UNICEF and the Japanese Committee for Vaccinations (JCV) who are the main supporters of vaccinations to Vanuatu. Now that Susan has won the trust of some of the villagers, the same culture that used to be a challenge has now become a massive aid. She says parents often show up for immunisation just to save face, which is a huge deal in Vanuatu culture. 

While it is a lot better than what it was ten years ago when she started here, it is far from perfect and extremely hard, especially when she needs to deal with emergencies. Just last week, Susan was in the health centre vaccinating children, when a woman came running asking her to rush to the river that was a 30-minute walk. A heavily pregnant woman, already in labour, from a village five hours away from the health centre had walked all the way but could not cross the flooded river in her delicate state. Susan dropped what she was doing and rushed with the basic necessities to deliver a child in the wilderness. Unbeknown to the mother herself, she was pregnant with twins. By the time Susan got there, the woman had already delivered one of the babies as she was crossing the river. The child died on the spot in the freezing water of the river. The second was born in Susan’s presence but did not survive more than 24 hours. The mother was devastated beyond words. 

It is on days like these, Susan’s determination to stay here grows stronger; days that remind her that giving up is just not an option. She cannot do much for the dead but she wants to do all that she can for the living. UNICEF and JCV are lucky to have strong and determined foot soldiers like Susan. It is only a matter of time and persistence that UNICEF will achieve its immunisation goals in this country, giving every child in Vanuatu a fair chance at life. 

Neha Thakkar
Communications Officer

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