Strangers With Candy

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


March 28, 2011

It was 1:30 in the afternoon, and the sun was broiling the earth beneath my feet. Sweat ran down my face and began to soak through my shirt. I could smell the swarming heat.

“Why are you laughing?” asked a bewildered co-worker as we walked through the streets of Sangalkam.

“It is difficult to explain,” I replied, smiling to myself and subsequently to her as well, but then continued. (I paraphrase and translate as faithfully as possible in memory):

“In the United States children are told not to talk to strangers. The community is not like the village here, where you know everybody. Somebody might try to steal you! So we are told to be careful of strangers.”

I paused and grinned. My friends looked confused.

“Especially strangers with candy.”

My friends chuckled, understanding where the joke—though it was not really a joke at all—was heading.

“So when you walk up to little kids in the street and force them to take medicine, telling them it is candy, it is a little bizarre to me. I do not think that would happen in America. Somebody would see you and call the police.”

“Really? They would call the police? Things are very different there.”

The humorous cross-cultural exchange carried on a little bit further, though I spared my more serious thoughts on medical ethics and responsibility in treating minors. It was unfortunately just a little too complicated for me to articulate adequately with my languages skills in January when this all occurred, and I certainly did not know the French or Wolof for “parental consent.”

We were distributing pediatric vitamin A/E complements as well as the anti-parasitic drug, mebendazole, to children under the age of five in Sangalkam. These are classified as “UN Essential Drugs,” and the staff of the Poste de Santé do their best to make sure that everybody gets them. That means going out into the community—to public, private, and Koranic schools, as well as setting up on the streets and going into homes—in order to reach the greatest possible portion of the population.

I accompanied some of the Poste de Santé health workers for two days on this mission. Things were a little haphazard. The scissors were forgotten back at the Poste, so we used the pair on my pocket knife to cut the caps of the vitamins so that the liquid could be squeezed into the mouths of children. People in the community were not informed ahead of time, but rather one or two personnel went door to door informing mothers to bring their children. They caught patients passing by in the midst of their daily routines. And they simply pulled kids off the street.

Still, I estimate that over the course of a couple days several hundred vitamins and anti-parasitic pills were administered, and this was not the only time such work would happen in the year. I was lucky enough to catch some of it on film, presented in the following clips.

Some things you WILL see: The children are told that they are being given candy, especially those whom are not brought by family members but merely found in the streets of the village. Some scream because of a general fear of all things medical or because they believe that they are going to be given an injection, since measles vaccinations are given in much the same manner (staff set up under a tree by one of the mosques in order to get a certain geographic sector of the village). The clips show some of different areas of Sangalkam where we worked during the two days, as well as the manner of distribution.

Some things you will NOT see: I could not film inside the mosques or Koranic schools that we visited (you may notice that we start to enter one, but I respectfully turn the camera off before I get through the door), and I was too busy with distribution to get any footage inside the secular schools. At one point one of the nurses just about tackled a little kid who was running away, but I missed it with the FlipCam.

As always, there was much to learn, and afterwards as many questions as answers, leaving me with plenty upon which to reflect. But you can see for yourself:

Lights, camera, action—enjoy the show!

Gus Ruchman