Happy Hour at the Judy Smith Health Centre

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Twice a month, Project Coordinator Ibrahim Swaray travels from Taiama to the nearby city of Bo to purchase multiple packages of “Pikin Mix” – a high protein baby food supplement made from locally grown pigeon beans and sesame seeds.

On the Fridays
that follow, the
Judy Smith Health Centre in Taiama bustles with its own version of happy hour. Mothers trickle in from near and far with their babies on their backs. They share stories about their darlings, and offer advice to one another.

These are busy days for midwives Fatima Brewah and Augusta Nichol. Each baby is weighed, measured and examined. Mothers share their questions and concerns. Finally, when the assessments are complete and the mothers have assembled on the clinic’s front porch, the midwives and/or Nurse Joan Foray begin the workshop they have prepared for the day. It could be on any number of topics – from nutrition to hygiene practices to birth control and more.

My presence there is a bit of a surprise. At first the women seem self-conscious, but I smile warmly and do my best to fade into the background so that I don’t distract them from the important lesson underway. They seem to forget I’m there – not so the two year olds.

Some of them cry at the sight of my strangely pale skin, then run to their mothers, seeking comfort. Meanwhile the babies nurse, undisturbed by me, the talk, or by their older siblings who, by now, are spying on me from the safety of their mothers’ arms. Some move a little closer and a few of the brave touch my skin, and then giggle with relief. It feels just like theirs!

The air is filled with a festivity and eager anticipation. And, as the workshop winds down, the singing begins. “Traditional” midwife Augusta Nichol has delivered babies for at least 35 years, and she still loves to spark singing amongst the new mothers. Once the singing is well underway, one of the mothers who has a beautiful voice naturally takes on the leadership. The women all know the words and tunes, and are confident improvisers as they clap complex rhythms to compliment the melodies.

Finally, it’s time to distribute the aptly named “Pikin Mix” – “pikin” being the Krio word for child. Another brand name is“Beni Mix” which simply translates to “Sesame Mix.”

In pairs, the women re-enter the clinic to receive the 2 kilogram bag of food-mix that they will share. I’m a little surprised to see the mother of a newborn accepting the mix. When I ask, the midwives laugh and reassure me, “the “Pikin Mix” is not for the baby. It’s for the mother, to help her make lots of milk for the baby.”

As “happy hour” winds down, it’s my turn to consult with the professionals. I’d been noticing children around town with very large, distended belly buttons and today I’ve noticed a couple of the children at the clinic with the same affliction. I gently ask how the umbilical cords are removed and whether mothers know how to care for the healing navels. Nurse Joan reassures me, “We teach all the mothers who come to the clinic proper hygiene practices. Unfortunately, not all of them have access to clean water.” The infections can lead to a herniated navel.

I’m a little relieved to learn that the distended belly buttons aren’t a sign of malnutrition, but saddened that clean water is altogether too rare a commodity in Sierra Leone. Still, the singing has buoyed my spirits and, like the women with their bags of food mix, I am still humming as I head home.

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