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Formula for Survival

Rebecca is on the phone as she waits for the rest of the ladies to arrive. Two mothers of twins are already there.

It’s 11 am and time for Rebecca to shift gears from her other work to be ready to greet several women and babies at the milk program office in town. Today is the day that these women will come in to get more formula and powdered milk for their babies. Four of them are mothers of twins, who are at a higher risk since the mother may not be adequately nourished in the first place to allow her to produce enough milk. The rest are caregivers of orphans or babies who have lost their mothers, having been chosen from the extended family. Many have traveled from far away villages on foot, carrying the babies on their backs. Some are already staying in Dano at a part of the hospital called CREN, which helps children who are desperately ill. All the children coming in today are in different states of health. Some of them would have been dead by now if they weren’t in the program getting help.

Sometimes you discover that despite having lived somewhere for a long time, you didn’t see something happening right there in your area. This is especially easy to do when living cross-culturally, and is what happened with us concerning orphans or partial orphans here among the Dagara. (Someone is considered an orphan if they have lost even one parent.) It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that we really understood what attitudes and practices were toward children who have lost one or both parents. What we discovered is that when a mother dies in childbirth, the baby is often left in a room alone to die, or that when they do try to help the baby, they lack the education and resources needed to do so correctly, and the baby dies anyway.

Rebecca is looking through the folders for each child in preparation for their arrival. She is still getting settled into the new office.

There are so many reasons for leaving the baby alone like that, and of course we should not stereotype or assume that every person is the same or has the same reasons. There are also those who did and do take care of orphans, doing so to different degrees of compassion as well. In general, however, in this culture adults are valued above children. One way this is evident is in the funeral practices which are very important Dagara customs. A typical adult’s funeral lasts three days, whereas a child’s funeral only lasts one day. Perhaps in a world where so many children don’t make it to their 5th birthday, people have learned to cope by concentrating their energies on those who actually live longer. Not that they don’t love their children, but they are taught that they should be tough in this way. I believe this is changing in the younger generations, however.

In the foreground is a mother and her twins. I love the sweet look on the face of the grandmotherly caregiver in the background.

Since funerals are so important and there is more of an attachment to the adult who died, the baby tends to get blamed for taking the mother, who was dearly loved and needed, away from the family. A stigma developed that orphans are cursed and will bring you bad luck. They say that no one will come and buy from you in the market, for example, if you take in an orphan. This is of course self-fulfilling if this attitude is widely accepted and therefore causes people to be afraid to come buy from you in the market.


Another aspect of the situation is simply the lack of resources to take care of the baby. The rest of the family feels a financial burden already and now they have to do something special to keep this baby alive. Formula is expensive relative to their means, so many times they will try sugar water, cow’s milk, or a porridge type food called “bouilli.” This is boiled ground up millet or corn making a rough kind of baby cereal, which is really a solid that babies won’t be ready for for months. Because of this, by the time they seek outside help for the baby, if they do, it is often too late.


So once our team became aware of this problem, we began to look for ways to take away the obstacles for a family who feels overwhelmed by taking care of an orphan. The most obvious need is formula for the babies, so we have begun to get the word out, working with the local social welfare office, that people have a place to come for help. Depending on a family’s situation, they can get milk for free or a reduced price. If the child is in poor health, we take them up to CREN where they can live for a while until the mother or caregiver is fully trained in how to use and clean bottles for formula, and until the child is stable health-wise.

The outside of the CREN building.

The child and caregiver can then return to their home in the village, returning at scheduled intervals to get more milk. They are also visited by Rebecca and/or our teammates, Suzanne and Melissa, in the village to make sure they are using the milk and bottles correctly. People from the States have sent many bottles, as well as sweet gifts of knitted baby caps and handmade quilts.

The Johnsons were able to bring back a suitcase full of bottles after their recent furlough.

Mr. Yameogo from Action Sociale is a talkative, jovial person who truly cares for kids and changing things for the future.

This ministry has so much potential for expansion, and so many needs to be met. So far, because people have heard of it and because we are working with Action Sociale, the local welfare office, other situations needing help have come up already. As Rebecca was preparing for all the ladies to come, Moussa Yameogo from Action Social came over with a man whose wife had just given birth a week ago but the baby was not eating. Another situation in the past involved a young girl who had a baby who wasn’t eating well because she had an infection. In the process of helping her, we discovered that she herself was an orphan also taking care of her younger sister. Someone had taken them in, but were not really being cared for due to the attitudes discussed before. We were able to get them in a better situation. Then the other day Suzanne was called out to the village to see a baby who wasn’t eating well and discovered that the baby had a cleft palate.

Each encounter offers the opportunity to educate and inform people on all kinds of childcare issues. Since it’s not necessarily practical for everyone to come to Dano, Rebecca has envisioned a situation where there are certain ladies in each village or village cluster who have a heart for the orphans and will work together to take care of them. This way they are not completely displaced and can be near extended family and friends in the community they would have had in the first place. Attitudes and levels of education are definitely changing for the better, so it’s an exciting time!

What do you think? Have you ever experienced a cultural difference that you weren’t expecting? What did you do?