On Wednesday I started (finally) revealing what I’d been up to in the summer.
I visited a place in the world that is so remote, a place that so little is known about, that I couldn’t look it up properly online.
Can you even imagine that?
I visited a region of Papua, in Eastern Indonesia which could quite easily be overlooked. Forgotten.
A place where babies are born on the filthy riverbanks, health care is non-existent and if you reach your 30s you are considered ‘old’.
I was here to see (and write about) the work UNICEF is carrying out in these isolated pockets of the world – in partnership with Pampers – to rid them of tetanus.
The MNT (mother and newborn tetanus) campaign is specifically designed to help mothers and children in developing countries to fight tetanus – a killer we simply don’t have to fear in this country.
And it is a killer. It is a disease passed through bacteria – so any baby born in unhygienic conditions is at risk. And without medical care, it’s fatal pretty much every time.
But I met the UNICEF staff on the ground who are determined to change that.
I’ve had many comments about the validity of Pampers being a part of this project and why don’t they just hand over a wedge of cash to fund it instead of calling for us to buy their nappies or ‘like’ their Facebook page to donate a vaccine?
Put quite simply, UNICEF get massive exposure from this campaign and from their involvement with Pampers.
It means the UNICEF name is beamed into many more homes and they get a level of media coverage they simply wouldn’t get otherwise.
It also helped put MNT on the map. Before this campaign it wasn’t considered ‘important’ enough for governments to look at. Since it’s inception five years ago, two countries have seen MNT eliminated. By the end of this year another seven are expected to follow suit.
And finally money, it gets UNICEF lots more money to do the wonderful things they do.
On this trip I saw firsthand how this campaign helps. Whole communities who would ordinarily go ignored are vaccinated and their children given hope. WHOLE communities. And this campaign is quite simply raising the money which allows UNICEF to do these amazing things.
This is not a sad story or designed to upset or make anyone feel guilty.
This is a story of hope and of positivity to show that, out there in the world, in corners we don’t even know about, there are people dedicated to making sure ALL children have a decent start in life.
And as a mother, that makes me proud to give UNICEF space on my blog.
So today, I continue my travels, following the journey a vial of tetanus vaccine has to make by plane, by boat, by foot in a cool box to reach these isolated people.
For days 1 – 4 visit here.
This is the sight which greets us when we arrive.
Papua may be remote and we are total interlopers to their land, but the children follow us around with big smiles on their faces and fill the air with their giggles. And when anyone gets a camera out suddenly they put on their very best faces.
We arrive in our small speed boat at Sawa Erma. It is so small; a tiny island community. But the people are really welcoming. The local midwife has given us her modest home. Six girls crammed into one room and 2 boys the other, our sleeping bags and mosquito nets lined up on the floor like sardines in a tin.
We feel humbled by their generosity because they have nothing. No running water. The toilet is basically a hole in the ground in a shack out the back.
I am sharing a room with five total strangers and stripping off to my bra and knickers in front of them on our first night together! Strangely this only dawned on me as being weird last week!
The place is so small I could walk around it in 10 minutes. But still, there is a school, a church, a health centre and a couple of shops.
We chat to mothers who are benefiting from the MNT campaign. Many of them have lost children to tetanus in the past. It’s easy to dismiss their loss as just part of the life they lead. But they have still lost a child. No parent should ever have to experience that, no matter where they live in the world.We meet schoolgirls being immunised in their classrooms, as well as the ‘social mobilisers’ who are responsible for spreading the word about the campaign amongst the community.
Today we are travelling another two hours up the river to Pupis, a village deep in the Asmat swamps.
Oh. My. Goodness. If we thought Sawa Erma was remote this just blows us away.
We’ve been chugging up the river for hours and then our of nowhere we see signs of life. Huts and boats and a landing platform.We pull up to the platform and big, muscular arms reach down to pull us up from our boats. Some of the men – even the children – have large machetes slung over their shoulder and it feels quite tribal.
But never at any point do we feel threatened or unsafe.
It is so basic and filthy here. Families crowd into small, wooden, roughly thatched huts. The walkways are haphazard wooden planks which are difficult to walk in Western shoes. The villagers walk barefooted or in flip flops. I wonder where on earth they get their ragtag collection of clothes from. One little boy is wearing a pair of Batman pyjamas. Others football tops.
There are dogs and pigs roaming around everywhere – and so there is poo everywhere too.
I feel awful as I silently thank the heavens that we aren’t staying here overnight.
The only way to leave the village is by dug-out canoe, but it would take hours to get to the nearest health clinic. So the clinic comes to them.
Everyone congregates in the ‘long house’ – a community building on stilts where spears hang from the walls. We are told that when an elder dies, their bodies are kept here.
This is the make-shift clinic.
It is packed. Children and their parents lined up in the dim light. There are many men with their children and we’re told they have had to give up a day’s work farming to be here. It is that important to them.
It takes quite a while because the health workers are keeping a detailed written record of the vaccinations they are giving. This is to ensure that when they come back, everyone who needs another dose is given one.
One mother was too scared to come to the long house for her vaccine. So the team go to her. No one is left out.
I feel totally and utterly privileged to be here. It is overwhelming.
The local health workers tell us there are places even more remote than this, some they simply cannot reach.
When scoping out our trip, there were plans to take us even further up the river – another 4 or so hours. But that idea had to be canned “because we were warned that if strangers arrive you would have arrows pointed at your head”.
But UNICEF worker Dr Amiri, who is travelling with us on our trip and who is leading the charge to vaccinate all women of childbearing age in this region, is having none of it. He insists they try harder. He tells us that after a recent expedition, they were travelling home and he spotted a patch of land he thinks is inhabited. The locals tell him there is nothing there but he insists and they stumble on a whole group of people they didn’t know about.
This is why we all sit around Dr Amiri and listen like little children; he is relentless in his quest to help the mothers and children of this region. Relentless.
I hope and pray there are more Dr Amiris out there for all the world’s children.
We arrive back at Sawa Erma, taking in all that we have seen and experienced. Liz, who is travelling with us from the UK UNICEF comms team, comments that she has managed to get dog poo all over her shoes while in Pupis.
“That’s not dog poo,” our translator Aini tells her. “It’s human”.
The next day we visit another village just a chug across the river in our ‘speed boat’. No one in these villages gets around in speed boats though. They don’t have the money to hire them. They use dug-out canoes. Dug-out canoes I was too nervous to get in to!
Pot-bellied children greet us as we arrive at the village’s jetty. Dr Amiri tells us they have worms; something easily cured with a simple tablet. He makes a note to bring some on their next visit.
There is something really quite beautiful about these places. A wonderful sense of community and family.
We are saying goodbye to Sawa Erma and the stilt villages and heading back to Timika.
First we must catch our 10-man plane out of the region.
We make the 2-hour journey by speed boat in driving rain, over bum-numbing bumps as the river meets the sea and our boats must now navigate waves.
Journalist Lucy, who is travelling with us from The Times, says it feels like her eyeballs are rattling in her head. It’s an arduous 120-minutes.
We arrive back at the runway wet and tired and filthy.
We haven’t washed in days. It’s hot and sticky and, quite frankly, the wet wipes don’t cut it.
Only when we arrive back at the runway there is a problem. Our tickets have been resold to locals, who don’t take kindly to strangers using the only flight out of the area.
We sit in the ‘waiting room’ not knowing whether we’re getting on that plane or not, trying to look as friendly as possible without actually scaring anyone.
I have never been so relieved to get onto a plane with fold-down seats, lap belts and no visible signs of maintenance. If a chicken had flapped it’s way down the rows of seats, I wouldn’t have been shocked.
I have seen things this week that blew me away. I have many many things to teach my babies.
Children everywhere deserve help and having seen for myself how UNICEF are trying to reach those in the most inhospitable of places they get my full support.
If you want to support the work UNICEF are doing for MNT in Indonesia – indeed all the other hard to reach places around the world – you can do so here:
If you’re a parent in the UK or Ireland and you buy nappies, consider buying Pampers from now until the end of December:
Every pack bought with the “1 pack = 1 life-saving vaccine” mark on it means you’ve helped.
Not buying nappies any more?
You can quite simply ‘like’ the Pampers Facebook page = 1 vaccine.
Personalise your own Miffy story for free = 1 vaccine.
Download the free Pampers Out and About iPhone app = 1 vaccine.