Vitamins, Door-to-Door

Alec Yeh - Senegal


March 8, 2010

Today I was able to see how global initiatives get implemented on the local level. I got to tag along as the nurses of the Poste went house to house to administer vitamins and pills. This doesn’t happen very often; maybe once every three months. It’s a national initiative, provided by, I think, the World Health Organization. I get confused because the WHO in French is known as OMS (Organisation Mondiale de Santé). It was one of those very stereotypical African health initiatives. I remember seeing pictures of Polio vaccinations in African countries. There was a nurse with an eyedropper squirting the Polio vaccine into the mouths of African babies.

Here in Sangalkam, we were doing just that, except instead of eyedroppers, we had these little red and blue capsules. We were giving them to kids six months old to five years old. The capsules were full of vitamin A and E. Since they don’t have leafy green vegetables, many children have deficiencies. My question is though they’re getting the vitamins now, what about the future? What about when they’re adults? They’re still lacking the vitamins in their diet. Instead of just giving them supplements every once and a while, wouldn’t the real solution be to try and change the diet? I guess that’s a little too much to ask. Diet is part of culture, and trying to change that would be changing part of the culture. Also, the little capsules contain absurdly high amounts of the vitamins. Your daily needs of vitamin A and E are 5,000 IU and 30 IU respectively. Those capsules have, I think, 100,000 IU and 2,000 IU respectively. I guess they’re really trying to make up for lost time. I don’t know if that’s healthy though. I always thought if you body doesn’t use all the vitamins you digest, you just pee or poop it out.

After giving the children the capsule, we also gave them a chewable tablet with Mebendazole BP. Since people here eat so much sugar, worms that feed on sugar tend to grow inside them. I know, it’s gross. But I’m glad that they’re trying to address both issues of vitamin deficiency and high sugar intake. The thing is, they had more of the capsules than the tablet. So I was like, “Aren’t some kids not going to get the second one? Isn’t that unfair?” Binta responded, “The tablets are available at the pharmacy; the vitamins are not.” The problem I still have is that it costs money at the pharmacy. It’s like they’re rationing health care. Only some kids get the second tablet, and while others, who can’t afford it, don’t get it.

Going around house to house, I got to meet a lot of people. And the whole thing was hilarious. Kids would be terrified of us. They see us only in the context of the Poste, so they immediately think we’ve come to give them shots. Though if a kid annoyed us, we would go “We’ve got needles and we’re going to use them!” One girl had to be dragged out of the house, held down by three people, in order for us to give her the capsule and tablet. It was ridiculous. I was like, “It’s not even a shot!” And this other time, when we approached the kid, she started screaming and running away. I thought she was afraid of us because we worked at the Poste. It turns out she was just afraid of me because I looked funny to her. I would go to touch her, and she would scream.

We eventually started going into houses, asking the parents, “Are there kids here? How old are they? Have they been given these?” And if everything was a go, we yelled “KIDS! WE HAVE CANDY! WHO WANTS SOME CANDY?!” The kids would come out and look at us with skepticism. The moment they tasted it, their faces would turn sour. They knew they were tricked. It was so funny. I laughed every time. Also, when we walked into a house with a tree that had fruit on it, the other nurses would start picking the fruit and eating it. Nobody cared. A nurse even picked one off the ground and took a bite, and decided it was gross. I was like, “Um. I think it’s on the ground for a reason.”

I also learned the most interesting trick. Because we would encounter kids on the street with no parents around, some of them would lie about their age. So to see if they were older than five, Binta would take their arm, stretch it over their head, and see if they could touch the opposite ear. If they could, then they were older than five. I had no idea that was even a thing. But it works! I also realized that’s what makes babies so cute. Their big ole heads and short stubby limbs. They’re so disproportioned!

I’m always surprised at everything the Poste does. Is there anything they don’t do? Oh, and I think this is very interesting. The word for candy in Wolof is “Tangal.” The word for candy in Mandrin is “Tanguo.” They sound almost the same. One of the Fellows said she thinks it’s because the Chinese were the first to bring them packaged candy, and so they adopted the name. It’s quite possible!

Alec Yeh