After her daughter was stricken with polio because she was not vaccinated, a mother goes door-to-door in her Nigerian village to make sure other children get their vaccines.
HAWAN DAKI, Nigeria (May 23, 2013) — Aisha may not be able to read, but she never forgets a name, or a child.
"Where are Hassan, Hassana and the other kids?" Aisha asks the woman of the house as she stands in the doorway.
"Hassana is in, but Hassan is outside," says their mother.
"Please call him, and also call Adnan, Walesa, Rahinatu and Hussaina," she says.
Aisha wears a UNICEF-blue hijab to cover her hair, and to make her easily recognizable as a Volunteer Community Mobilizer (VCM) in Hawan Dawaki, the settlement in northern Nigeria’s Kano state where she lives with her 10 children.
In each of Hawan Dawaki’s 220 households, Aisha knows every child below age 5 by name. She knows every newborn baby. She knows the vaccination status of every pregnant woman. And, most of all, she knows which of the children have been vaccinated against polio.
Many children do not receive the polio vaccine here. Sometimes they are missed because parents refuse to allow their children to take it, whether out of fear or misunderstanding. Sometimes they are missed because vaccinators don’t know the exact number of eligible children in the household.
Whatever the reason, irreversible paralysis affects one child out of every 200 infected with the virus.
In this case, it does not matter that Aisha cannot read. She understands this statistic—one child out of every 200—better than anyone. She understands it in the way only a mother can, because Aisha’s own daughter, Mariyam, was that one child.
Aisha believes that Mariyam, now 6, went unvaccinated because the vaccinators did not know how many children in her household were eligible to receive the vaccine. She believes that her small daughter has polio today because the vaccinator did not know to ask for her by name.
And that is why Aisha now walks along the hot, dusty tracks between the houses of her village, knocking on door after door and calling each child by name.
“You know why I am here?" Aisha asks at another doorstep.
"Yes," says a young mother with a baby at her hip.
"You still don’t accept the vaccine?" Aisha’s smile fades.
"No, he doesn’t allow us to." The woman’s face is regretful, but her husband’s wishes are clear.
Aisha doesn’t give up. She speaks about the misunderstandings the family may have about the vaccine. Then she says:
“Do you know that to go to the holy city of Mecca from Nigeria, you have to be take polio drops, since Nigeria is a reservoir of the virus?”
It’s unlikely that most children in this poor, remote part of Kano will make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is seen as a pinnacle in the life of a Muslim. Still, no one is likely to argue with what is required to go to Mecca.
The woman is silent. Maybe she will tell her husband what Aisha has said, but it is clear that the decision is not hers to make.
It’s a delicate balance. To do her work, Aisha must rely on the approval of religious and other local authorities—most of whom in this part of Nigeria are men. And yet without women like Aisha, who can "get a foot in the door" where many women would never open the door to a man, the effort to eradicate polio in Nigeria wouldn’t have a chance.
Since she began her work, Aisha has reached 56 more households than the vaccination team used to reach. Thanks to her, 159 additional children received the polio vaccine in this high-risk settlement.
Earlier this year, a deteriorating security situation and the tragic deaths of vaccination workers made it necessary to suspend vaccination activities in Kano State. For two months, whole communities went unvaccinated. Fortunately, activities have now been reinstated, with a vaccination campaign carried out in April 2013.
Now, across Kano State, 557 volunteers like Aisha are knocking on doors again as part of the polio communication campaign. There are nearly 2,200 volunteers working in eight high-risk states in Nigeria, with plans to scale up the project this year.
In the meantime, Aisha continues through her day. She walks down the dusty streets. She knocks on doors. Sometimes, when a door opens, she will hear words like “He won’t let me.”
Aisha can’t take back what happened to her daughter. But always—always—she will persist in making sure it doesn’t happen to other children.