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Africa BION #1

I am starting to loose track of the incredible stories I encounter, so I’ve decided to start a new series of posts “Africa, believe it or not” where I document the bizarre and shocking day to day anecdotes I come across.

Mobile phones and premature babies

The other week I was having dinner with a French doctor. She was a paediatrician and ran the children’s department of a hospital in Berberati, CAR’s second largest town. As you can imagine, she faced numerous challenges, which we discussed at length, but one story she told really stuck with me.

The facilities available to care for premature babies here are very basic. The equipment amounts to little more than heat lamps, used at night to help maintain the child’s temperature. This is pretty much all you can do and the premature baby unit was one of the few places with electricity throughout the night (provided by a special generator). Child mortality rates are high, but even so, our doctor arrived first thing every morning to find an unusually high number of babies were dying during the night. Many more than during the day.

After a few days of investigating and puzzling on this, with no apparent answers, she decided that the only thing to do was to conduct some surprise visits to the hospital in the middle of the night, to try and see if she could figure out what was going on.

At first, what she found was not so bad. The hospital was clean and conditions were relatively normal. However, when she went to check on the premature baby unit, she found that half the lamps were off.

Warning: this next bit is sick.

The reason the heat lamps were off was because the local doctors on the night shift had unplugged them so that they could charge their mobile phones.

When she confronted her local counterparts, they feigned ignorance and said they didn’t realise those plugs were for the heat lamps.

Expats here spend an awful lot of time making excuses for the local population. While they are often quite legitimate ones on the grounds of education and cultural differences, they are also often motivated by a urge to be politically correct. However, I don’t think that even the most PC of people could find a single excuse to put forward for these actions.

The only explanation we could think of is that old adage about Africa, that “life is cheap”. It is a frustrating saying, that covers up a world of complexity, but sometimes it is true. Apparently a fully charged mobile phone is more important to some people here, than a child’s life.

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