How can a young lady carry such a heavy burden?

Nelly was born valid but stopped standing straight on both legs when she was 4 years old.

Serge Wingi (translated from French by Emily Scott)
Nelly a été paralysée suite à la poliomyélite
14 January 2019

Kayombo village, Tanganyika province, Democratic Republic of Congo. To support the polio vaccination campaign launched in April, I visited the village of Kayombo, 17km north of Kalemie, which is known to be the home of many people who oppose the vaccination due to popular and traditional beliefs. Arriving in the village, I noticed a 20-something year old young lady who looked as though she was in the streets of Kinshasa and not in a small village in the middle of Tanganyika province. Sat in the shade, hair braided perfectly, the young lady put on her make up in a small mirror. Intrigued, I talked to a few villagers who quickly told me that Nelly was the eldest daughter of the village chief.

Preoccupied by my activities, I forgot the presence of Nelly that had so intrigued me when arriving in the village. It was only in the early afternoon when I was leaving the village that I remembered Nelly, this young lady putting on her make up in front of a little mirror. She shouted after us to “wait, wait!” as she wanted to come with us to Kalemie to sell food products there. It was on seeing Nelly approaching the car that I understood that behind her big smile, her made up eyes and her fashionable clothes, hid a great sorrow; she was using her arms to move towards us. How can a young lady, who has her whole life ahead of her, carry such a heavy burden? I made the most of the journey between the village and Kalemie to question Nelly. “I was born in good health but from the age of four, I could no longer stand on both legs”, she told me.

At the time, no one in the village had thought about the possibility of polio. “My parents attributed the illness to witchcraft”, Nelly continued. For months, this four-year-old girl had been taken to all of the witchdoctors and healers in the area. “I spent whole days with my body buried up to my stomach to strengthen my legs”, remembered Nelly. But no change was seen except the few family possessions that disappeared before their very eyes. All of the carers took their horses, chickens, clothes or cooking utensils to care for the little girl. It was only after countless successive fails that Nelly’s parents decided to take their little girl to a healthcare centre. Laboratory tests quickly revealed that it was polio, a disease causing crippling irreversible paralysis.

With her lower limbs paralysed, Nelly is unable to stand on her legs, forcing her to crawl. “My condition causes me a lot of grief, but in time, I have learnt that I have to live with it”, she told me. Despite her disability, Nelly has set up a small business to gain some independence. The young lady shuttles back and forth between her village and Kalemie selling market products that she buys from local farmers.

Une jeune fille heureuse d'être vaccinée contre la polio en RDC

As a mother to her two-year-old daughter, Nelly strictly follows the vaccination schedule. “I don’t want her to become disabled like me”, she explains. She also encourages all the mothers in the village to vaccinate their children. During recent polio vaccination campaigns, Nelly and her father have been heavily involved in their community to monitor unvaccinated children and to ensure their recovery. “My daughter is disabled because of my ignorance”, confessed Nelly’s father, his voice filled with emotion. As village chief, he encourages parents to vaccinate their children to keep polio out of their village. “I can’t see any more cases of polio in the village. Health workers need to vaccinate our children!”, he explains, more determined than ever.

More than three million children have been vaccinated during the recent vaccination campaign in the Haut-Lomami, Tanganyika, Haut-Katanga and Lualaba provinces. However, in certain communities, a significant number of children are still not protected due to the persistent opposition to the vaccination. UNICEF supports the government to raise awareness in resistant households and to mobilise hundreds of community representatives, helpers and social mobilisers.