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Strange But Miraculous Medicine

Thanks to a successful vaccination program, the Kunama people of Eritrea no longer fear the crippling poliovirus.

text and photographs by Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.

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Representing CNEWA on a recent field trip, I journeyed to Eritrea to visit with the Kunama, a peaceful, nomadic people who eventually settled near the border with Ethiopia. The origin of the Kunama is unknown – they lack an alphabet and therefore have no recorded history. Over the years, ongoing war and unrest between Ethiopia and Eritrea have killed off significant numbers of Kunama, compelling them to turn inward. These border communities remain susceptible to malaria and still lack adequate infrastructure, such as roads and sewage systems – prime breeding grounds for the poliovirus, the agent that causes poliomyelitis, an infectious disease commonly known as polio.

Polio is a problem of epidemic proportions in both Eritrea and Ethiopia. It usually affects children under the age of three and attacks the central nervous system. The majority of those infected (at least 90 percent) often are not even aware that they have been infected. The government seeks to eradicate this crippling, sometimes fatal disease with a vaccination program.

The Eparchy of Barentu set up a mobile clinic that visits all its parishes. Supplies for the clinic were loaded into a jeep: a large picnic cooler in which the vaccine was stored, colorful posters stating why and how the vaccine should be taken, a table and two chairs.

I accompanied Abba Tomas, Vicar General of the eparchy, to a Kunama village to see the mobile clinic in action.

Normally, the Kunama would prefer local remedies. But the community’s leaders were receptive to the Eparchy of Barentu, especially to the Sisters of the Poor, who facilitated the program.

Sister Tsehainesh-Gzal, a nurse and a Sister of the Poor, administered the oral vaccine to the people of Ebaro and the surrounding villages. Two Comboni priests, Abba Javier and Abba Reuben, were on hand to help.

One by one the women approached the hut with their children. Only three women could fit inside the hut, especially when each mother had several children. Using the posters, a lay catechist explained how polio can be a serious health threat, how to detect the virus and why immunization would help each child. The catechist also described rehabilitation exercises to be used if a child contracted the disease. Illiteracy and language differences did not prevent the women from understanding these facts.

When it was their turn to take the vaccine, some children took the drops with stoic courage; others screamed and their mothers had to hold them while the nurse poured the vaccine into their mouths.

After each child received the vaccine, the women and children remained around the hut visiting with one another, watching others arrive and just enjoying the day “away from home.”

The African sun is unbearably hot, but following tradition the Kunama women wear layer upon layer of flowing garments. Kunama villages are desolate and colorless; it is a small wonder the women wear such lovely, brightly colored clothing. All the women wear colored beads that identify them as Kunama. Some younger women wear jewelry – in their noses, their ears, around necks and ankles; all the children, male or female, wear at least one amulet around their necks. Christians wear crosses or scapulars.

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Tags: Ethiopia Children Health Care Eritrea