Sunday, November 29, 2009

LEANDRE - OCTOBER 2009

Unfortunately, I was only in Cote D'Ivoire for about 48 hours. It was meant to be longer but during my layover in London, I found out that Cote D'Ivoire recently instituted a new policy requiring visas for foreigners entering the country. I've been there twice before and never needed a visa so I had no idea, but I probably should have checked first. Regardless, I was able to reroute my flights in the middle of the night and then spent the next day running around London getting the necessary documents to the Ivorian embassy so I could get an express visa and fly out the following day.

Thankfully, it all came together and I flew into Abidjan at dinner time on Tuesday night. I was greeted at the airport by Benedict and Rhenet, the guys who run the Ivorian-based organization, CHILDREN'S HOPE. These guys are in charge of finding the children in Abidjan who need medical treatments and do all of the legwork to prepare them to come to the US like getting their passports, visas, shots etc. They're amazing guys, they do incredible work and they've become good friends.

I was pretty jet-lagged but couldn't resist going out for a quick, traditional Ivorian dinner. Now, when I'm in Abidjan, Benedict and Rhenet always arrange the transport because I can't rent a car and they don't have one. So, they borrow cars from friends and supporters which means I'm always in a different car with a different driver. Generally the cars are great, but on this particular night I was in a tiny car with a driver I'd just met and Aicha, Benedict's and Rhenet's new co-worker. As the three of us stopped at a red light in the middle of nowhere, the car sputtered out and died. Perfect. Not such a quick dinner after all. I looked around and noticed three guys walking down the road up ahead. So, I got out and in my best French, which is getting better with every trip to Abidjan, asked the two guys to help me push the car. Before I could even get the words out, they were running over to help. I looked at my driver who just smiled and said "African solidarity...". I love this place. I'm pushing a tin can car with a couple of Africans I don't know and we're laughing and cheering as the driver pops the clutch and the car starts. I offer to give the guys a ride. They thank me profusely but insist on walking. "African solidarity"...

Dinner is served and it's great. Atieke, a small cous-cous-esque grain that you ball up in your hand and a whole fried fish covered with fresh peppers, onions and tomatoes. There is no silverware, only hands and everyone shares. Again, “African Solidarity”...

In the morning I woke up, took my Malaria pill, met up with Benedict, Rhenet and some of their co-workers and set off to meet Leandre and his mother. I told them before I came that this was the first thing I wanted to do so Leandre and his mother could both feel somewhat comfortable with me taking him on this trip.

Just like any other city, Abidjan has a downtown with some tall buildings surrounded by a bunch of suburbs. The difference here is that the suburbs in Abidjan are extremely overpopulated and the poverty level is unimaginable. Leandre comes from a suburb of Abidjan called Yopougon, where there are about 2.5 million people living in a disproportionately small area. Life is hard here. It's packed with shanties as far as the eye can see and everyone is suffering.

In classic fashion, as we're on our way to meet Leandre, our car broke down. Different car than the night before but once again, before I knew it, a group of African guys were pushing us down the road to a gas station. Gotta love African solidarity.

Just before meeting Leandre, we were joined by a reporter and cameraman from the Ivorian news station who would be following us to document the work we were doing. When we arrived at Leandre's village, we were about 10 men, a few women and a cameraman so we drew some serious attention. As soon as I got out of the car, I was mobbed by children calling me "Blanco", for obvious reasons. I got to play a little soccer with them as we walked to Leandre's home which really seemed to thrill the kids. However, I think I enjoyed it more. When we arrived, Leandre's mom emerged with him in her arms. She was clearly a little overwhelmed, as was Leandre which brought some serious wailing, but we all quickly warmed to each other. After we discussed feeding and a general care plan for Leandre, I left them feeling like we'd be on solid ground for the two of us to travel together.

Now, I' mentioned this is in the blog from my previous trip but I'll say it again...their is always a plan for the day when I'm in Cote D'Ivoire, but I never really know what it is and it changes throughout the day. I get driven around anywhere and everywhere and meet tons of people but it never happens the way I'm told it's going to happen so, I just have to be present and ready for anything.

One other thing that I should mention is that "Desperate Housewives" is a huge show in Abidjan. I did a bunch of episodes last year that were literally just airing during the time I was there so, part of Benedict's agenda was to parade me all over town to take pictures and shmooze with various friends and supporters of CHILDREN'S HOPE. This made our daily travels more extensive because we were constantly taking detours to meet up with people all over the city. I was more than happy to do it, but it made for very long days.

On this day, we were to have a meeting with the former first lady of Cote D'Ivoire, Madame Terese Houphouet-Boigny, because she's interested in supporting our efforts. As we left Leandre and his mother, I was told that our meeting, which seemed to be a real coup that excited all of my hosts, was being rescheduled for later that day.

So, I'm in Yopougon and the meeting with first lady isn't happening so we all decided to travel the neighborhood and meet some of the other families with children who are candidates for our program.

We spent hours driving around. The families were incredibly gracious and proud and suffering. Each one of the children was a more severe and overwhelming case.

There were too many to go into right now, but the one that hit me the hardest was Francesca, a two year old girl born with her stomach on the outside of her abdomen. This is actually a fairly common birth defect. When babies are in utero, their organs grow on the outside of their bodies and as they develop, the organs move inside. Sometimes this process doesn't come to completion before the baby is born, as was the case with Francesca. Because most mothers in this part of the world give birth alone in their homes, there is no recourse for birth defects. The children are left to live with their conditions until they are killed by them.

After spending some time with Francesca, her mother wanted me to see how she suffers so she lifted Francesca's dress. I lost my breath as I saw her stomach literally hanging out of her abdomen in a plastic bag. This little girl just looked at me with these big, sad brown eyes like she knew how bad it was and I almost lost it. I turned to her mother and told her that I'd do everything I could to help. I try not to make promises to families I meet in Africa because it's not always easy to help and the families are so desperate that they'll hold onto any glimmer of hope but, when I saw Francesca, I couldn't hold myself back. All you want to do when you see something like that is fix it. So, I guess fixing Francesca is my next goal...

After a long day in Yopougon, I found out that our meeting with the first lady has been cancelled yet again so, Benedict took me to his sister's house for dinner. It was on the opposite end of town from my hotel and we drove there at rush hour which meant I got to sit in my first Ivorian traffic jam. We spent two hours on a big road with no discernable lanes, hundreds of cars and lots of exhaust in my face but, after visiting all those families, I was feeling pretty grateful to be alive and healthy and couldn't have been happier. By the way, Benedict's sister is an amazing cook...

On Thursday I woke up in my hotel to a traditional African band playing literally outside my door. It was beautiful music and If I hadn't been planning on sleeping in to prepare for my overnight flight with Leandre, I'd have thought it was incredibly cool.

Because it was my last day and I was flying out on a 10:45pm flight with Leandre, I had alot to squeeze in. Of course, unbeknownst to me, Benedict and the guys had their own agendas as well so, things got very hectic.

After various meetings with friends of CHILDREN'S HOPE, we had a meeting with the CEO of MOOV, the largest telecommunications company in Cote D'Ivoire. We pitched him our program in an effort to link up with some sort of sponsorship from them. The CEO was very responsive to us and pledged to help out in the future.

After that meeting and some other side trips to change cars and take pictures with people, we moved on to a seriously overpopulated and dangerous suburb of Abidjan called Adjame, to visit Lamine. Last year I brought Lamine from Abidjan to the US for surgery to correct a birth defect he'd been living with for six years in which the end of his intestine protruded from his abdomen. He spent about nine months in America undergoing treatment and then went back home to his parents with a new lease on life. I had bonded with him on our trip and I've followed his recovery and life closely. This kid and his health mean alot to me so I wanted to check in him and see how life has changed for him since I'd left him a year ago.

I got out of the car in front of Lamine's shanty and was struck by the smell of raw sewage and burning tires. As I stepped over the open sewer in front of Lamine's home, I couldn't stop thinking about what hell it must be to live there. At that moment, a group of blissfully unaware kids ran by, laughing as they chased a soccer ball down the street behind me. I smiled, realizing that happiness is truly relative.

I had some serious deja-vu as I walked through the entrance of Lamine's shanty community and found his extended family cooking and washing just I had the year before. While they all seemed to remember this American guy who took Lamine away last year, I wondered if Lamine would remember me.

I walked into Lamine's shanty and his parents jumped up to greet me. Seeing the joy and gratitude in their eyes almost brought me to tears. Then Lamine emerged from the back and looked up at me with these big brown eyes and just beamed. Before I could even say anything to him, he ran over and jumped in my arms. He just clung to me for about five minutes until I started to hear him sniffle and realized he was crying. Apparently he did remember me and I'd made as big an impact on him as he had on me. I think this kid and I are going to be friends for a long time.

I caught up with Lamine and his family, took some pictures and gave him a few gifts I'd brought and then we set off to meet more people, take pictures, pick up Leandre, get my bags packed, meet the first lady and make it to the airport by 8:30pm.

All day, the guys had been trying to arrange this meeting with the first lady who had invited us to dinner at 7:30. Now, I needed to be at the airport by 8:30 to check in. I knew it would be a zoo there and I'd be carrying Leandre solo for the first time and I wanted to give myself some time. So, I negotiated a 7pm meeting with the first lady for cocktails instead of dinner.

We got to the hotel at 6:30pm. I stuffed my backpack with every imaginable baby supply you can imagine that I'd lugged from the US and met up with Leandre and his mother. I wish I could explain the gratitude that Leandre's mother feels. She really believes that a miracle has occurred. The fact that a group of people in America, who she doesn't know, came together and gave money so that another American could fly to her and take her sick child to the US where doctors would voluntarily fix him out of the kindness of their hearts is incredible, especially to someone who lives in the kind of despair and poverty that she does. Every time I spoke to her, she would say, "God bless you. This is a miracle. Thank you, thank you."

After I met up with Leandre and his mother at the hotel, we all jumped in a van to meet the former first lady at 7pm, which we were now late for. As we pulled up the long, tree-lined driveway to her house, we were stopped by a small force of armed guards who eventually waved us in and we continued down to a huge, beautiful mansion with about fifteen luxury cars parked outside. I was in awe. Not so much of the extravagant wealth, but of it's juxtaposition to level of poverty nearby. It's important to note here that while many countries in Africa suffer political corruption, Madame Terese Houphouet-Boigny is the widow of Cote D'Ivoire’s first and most celebrated president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who led the country for thirty three years until he passed away in 1993. He was a true man of the people and is still revered today as the biggest blessing in the history of Cote D'Ivoire.

We were led to the downstairs part of the house where there is, among other things, a private chapel hidden behind a wall and a discotheque. As men in white tuxedos hustled off to get me a Fanta, I walked outside to check out the enormous pool and helipad, not to mention the breathtaking view of the entire city.

As I walked back inside, the first lady came down the stairs and took over the room with a magnanimous charisma that was clearly crafted from years of being in the public eye. I am told to call her “Mama Terese”. We all sat and drank Fanta as I told her, in my best French, about what I’d been doing in Abidjan and how our program worked. She then spoke to me very fast in French for about ten minutes. When she was through, I turned to Rhenet who translated for me. “She say she is very proud to have you in Abidjan. Thank you for taking care of babies of Cote D’Ivoire”. I took his word for it.

Now, the whole time we were there, Leandre’s mother was at my side holding leandre and two things were running through my mind. One, I couldn’t help but think about what a surreal experience this must have been for her. Two, I couldn’t ignore the fact that Leandre wouldn’t stop crying except for when he was nursing, which obviously wouldn’t be possible after we left his mother. Yup, this was going to be a long journey to the States...

I took some pictures with the Mama Terese, we had a few laughs and then it was time to head off for the airport. Knowing we were running behind because we came to meet her, Mama Terese offered us a police escort to the airport. It was an incredibly sweet offer but I declined, feeling that there were probably more serious matters for the police in a place like Abidjan.

We pulled up to the airport and it was chaos. There were people everywhere and it was loud and hectic. I don’t think Leandre’s mother had ever even been to the airport and now she had to hand her kid off to some guy who was going to fly him to America?! She was a little nervous to say the least so I told the guys to give us a minute and pulled her aside. I showed her my backpack full of supplies and her eyes lit up. I don’t think that she’d ever seen baby wipes and that many toys and clothes. Then I looked her square in the eyes, smiled and promised her that Leandre would be safe with me and that he’d return completely mended. She took a deep breath, smiled and seemed at peace. I think something about her being at peace made leandre feel at peace because he instantly stopped crying. The three of use were standing there having a little moment of trust and quiet and his mother just kept thanking me and saying how grateful she was to everyone who helped me come to Africa to help her son. I put myself in her shoes for a minute and became overwhelmed by what a big deal this must have been for her. To me, this is somewhat of an adventure and a really cool way to be of service in the world but, to her, it's literally like winning the lottery. I gave her a hug and she held out Leandre so that I could take him. As I gingerly pulled Leandre from his mother’s arms, he started to wail at a decibel reserved for hard rock bands and NASA launches. At this point, in the chaos and now screaming, there wasn’t time for a long goodbye. I just had to go. So, I waved goodbye to Benedict, Rhenet, their friends and Leandre’s mother and proceeded to the ticketing desk to check in.

Now, I’d spoken with at least a half dozen Air France ticket agents throughout my trip in Boston, Paris, London and Abidjan to secure a special seat in the bulkhead row where there is a place for a basinet to be hooked into the wall in front of the seat. I knew this would be essential to our comfort and would allow me easy access to the bathroom for changing etc. At every point that I spoke with an Air France agent I was assured that I had been assigned that seat on each leg of the trip.

Sure enough, after waiting at the gate in Abidjan with a screaming baby, I boarded the plane to find out that I had a middle seat in the back. The flight attendant on board told me she was sorry but the bulkhead/basinet seats were reserved for people with infants and I could only sit there if any were left empty after the plane finished the boarding process. I was speechless. What the hell did she think was screaming in my arms?! A puppy?! I was one of those people who needed the special freakin’ seat! I decided not to lose my mind, but instead hung out in the back of the plane praying for one of the baby seats to be left empty. Thankfully, another flight attendant had sympathy for us and made it her mission to put me in the right seat. I don’t remember her name but I’ll never forget her face. I got my seat and although there were a few diaper changes and a little crying in our seven hour flight to Paris, Leandre was able to sleep a fair amount in the basinet. I was grateful.

As you’ve seen from the pictures, Leandre has a severely cleft lip and palette so eating is a seriously arduous and time consuming process. I had a baby bottle with a special, elongated nipple to go far back into his throat because it’s almost impossible for him to create any suction the way his mouth is deformed. He can’t get alot of formula out of the bottle and what he does get down, comes with alot of air, so he ends up spitting most of it up, which I found out the hard way. This is all to say that throughout our trip, feeding was my main concern. I was constantly worried that he wasn’t staying nourished, and he was constantly crying because he was always hungry.

Anyhow, our first leg of the trip from Abidjan to Paris was relatively smoothly. We de-boarded the plane in Paris at 5am to hang out at our terminal and wait until our flight to New York left at 2pm. That’s right, a nine hour layover. Not my first choice but the tickets were cheap so I couldn’t complain. Since we had some time to kill, I decide to swing by the Air France desk and make damn sure that we had a basinet seat on the flight to New York.

In charming and compassionate french tradition, the agent looked up my reservation and discovered that not only did I not have a basinet seat but Leandre’s ticket was not in the computer. I showed her the hard copy that I had but it didn’t make a difference. We argued for about fifteen minutes about whether or not I had to purchase a new ticket for him at an astronomical price. Eventually, after I’d gone through every stage of subdued rage, she finally looked in the computer again and dug up the ticket. Oh my god. I just took our tickets, smiled and walked away.

It was now about 6am and I arrived at our terminal. We had eight hours to kill, the place was deserted and Leandre was alseep in my arms. I didn’t want to wake him so I just sat there and held him for about an hour. I’d been awake since the marching band woke me up at 6am the previous day so I was pretty exhausted but I didn’t feel like there was any legitimate way for me to sleep while I had this little guy in my arms. I’m sure some of you parents know how to pull off sleep while traveling with an infant, but I was new to this and since Leandre’s mother had had such blind faith in me, I felt a responsibility to keep an ever-present eye on him. So, I just sat for about an hour until I felt a fierce and sudden rumbling in his diaper. Leandre’s eyes popped open and he began to wail again. This time, obviously, it wasn’t about being hungry. I briskly walked over to the restrooms and discovered that Charles De Gaulle Airport has these amazing, spacious baby changing rooms with a padded changing table, baby wipes and everything one would need. I was thrilled and so was Leandre.

This was one of many times I changed his dirty diaper throughout the trip but different from the rest. I had gotten to the point where the dirty mess was in the garbage. Leandre was all clean, powdered up and ready for the new diaper. As I prepped the diaper to go on, Leandre grinned from ear to ear and spread his arms like he was ready to fly away and I chuckled. Just then, he started to pee straight up onto my shirt. As I stood there with pee hitting me in the chest, I just laughed as I looked at this little kid. He looked like some classic antique Roman cherub fountain. It was hilarious. I cleaned up the mess, got the new diaper on and changed my shirt so we could go back and wander the terminal for the next few hours.

Finally, it’s 1pm and time to board the plane for New York. At this point, Leandre had been sleeping for most of our layover but with all of the chaos around boarding, he had woken up and was starting to get fussy. We pre-boarded with all of the first class people and as I carried Leandre past their luxurious seat/beds, I wondered if this eight hour flight would be a nightmare.

As all of the passengers filtered in, everyone who sat down around me gave me that classic, “Oh-great-a-f#$@ing-crying-baby” look. So, I gave them my classic, “Get-of-my-f#$@ing-back-I’m-carrying-a-sick-kid-to-the-US” look and kept going about my business with Leandre. These looks from people would persist throughout the eight hour flight because Leandre did indeed cry most of the way. I was the guy walking up and down the aisles bouncing the crying baby and standing by the bathrooms. At one point I was convinced he soiled his diaper and I thought, “great, we have an answer to why he won’t stop crying. I’ll just change him, he’ll fall asleep and we’ll be good”. So, I took him into the bathroom, undid his diaper and nothing. He’d been screaming for hours now at the top of his lungs, I’m staring at a perfectly clean diaper and I was at a total loss. With total desperation in my voice but also laughing at myself I said, “Kid! I don’t know what you want. What is it?! Help me help you!”. No response. So, I put his diaper back on and continued to try to calm him down. I have to say that among the droves of pissy people on the plane, there were a few older women, clearly mothers whose kids had grown, who offered to take Leandre off my hands for a few minutes so I could have a rest. While their offers were incredibly generous and sweet given Leandre’s volume, it felt irresponsible for me to pass him off.

Eventually, I decided to give the basinet a try. I layered a bunch of blankets in there and made it the coziest place on earth. I wanted to get in it. At this point, his crying had reached an unholy volume. Just as I was ever so carefully lowering him into his swaddled heaven, I see his eyes widen like he had just realized something. Strange but I didn’t think much of it. Then an eruption of white vomit flowed from his mouth covering his entire face and everything around him. I’ve never seen anything like it. I didn’t even know he had that much formula in him. I was in shock. Apparently, due to the way leandre’s mouth is deformed, he sucks in more air than formula when he’s feeding and the result is an upset stomach, lots of crying and then the grand finale. I cleaned Leandre and the basinet, changed my shirt and he fell right to sleep on me and we were both in heaven...for a half hour. However, this time when Leandre woke up he was somewhat content and quiet, taking in the scenery around him, which I imagine was fairly surreal for him. I laughed at the irony of the fact that of course he wakes up as we’re beginning our descent into New York and NOW he’s an angel. The mothers I mentioned before all looked at me and shrugged as if to say, “Murphy’s Law”...

The plane landed and everyone filtered out as I cleaned up our stuff and repacked the baby bag. It looked like the baby aisle at Target had exploded around us but Leandre was happy as a clam and starting to doze off again and I was happy. I’d completely bonded with this kid and it was going to be hard to say goodbye but I also needed a little rest. With Leandre in the baby sling across my chest and the baby bag on my back, I was relieved to be walking off the plane to set foot in America...or so I thought.

After walking through the airport with a big smile on my face and a skip in my step, I rounded a corner and walked smack into a crowd of hundreds of travelers shuffling through the longest snaking line I’d ever seen. Were the Rolling Stones having a concert? Nope. That’s right, in my sleep depraved excitement, I’d completely forgotten about customs. I love America and I know there’s good reason for security but at that moment I felt like we were so close to the end of the trip and I just wanted to get there. We waited for almost two hours and finally got to the customs desk where a serious guy with a crew cut waved us over. I’d been watching him act like a true ambassador of bureaucracy for the last hour or so and I was very aware that Leandre and I looked like a strange case, so I wasn’t looking forward to getting the third degree from him. I walked up to the desk, pulled out our visas, passports and special escort travel documents and gave this guy my best, “I-know-this-looks-weird-but-I’m-really-a-volunteer-working-for-a-non-profit-and-not-a-child-trafficker” speech. When I was done I took a deep breath. The guy looked at me, smiled and said, “That’s really cool of you. Nice work” and then stamped our passports and waved me on. My lesson: don’t make assumptions about people...

After customs, I grabbed my bag of the carousel and walked out into the terminal and was met by Nancy, an American Airlines attendant who’d be flying with leandre on the final New York to Ohio leg of the trip. Nancy was incredibly nice and has two grown children of her own and had been selected by Tami, the woman in Ohio who runs the program arranging the doctors and foster care, so I felt like Leandre would be in good hands.

As we rode the Aitram to Nancy’s terminal, I gave her all of the advice I had gathered about feeding and changing Leandre and anything I thought would be useful to her. We got out and as I handed over Leandre in the baby sling I’d been carrying him in for what seemed like alot longer than it had been, I got a little choked up. I felt responsible for him and very protective and even though the trip wasn’t totally smooth, I felt like we’d worked out a pretty good system. I’d also gotten used to having this little personality with me and even though we couldn’t communicate, there was some sort of unspoken bond that had developed and I was going to miss having him around.

I waved goodbye to Nancy and Leandre as they walked down the tunnel to their terminal and felt alot of joy and a sense of accomplishment but it wasn’t easy to see the little guy go.

I’ll definitely be following Leandre’s progress throughout his stay in the US. I don’t know if I’ll be able to take him back to Cote D’Ivoire when he’s recovered and ready to go home, but I will absolutely visit him whenever I’m back there. He may not know it right now, but he’s made a new friend for life.



3 Comments:

Blogger Rebecca said...

Todd- What a wonderful tale of your journey- I was fortunate enough to be a piece of Leandres puzzle. I was his craniofacial nurse here in Ft Wayne Indiana- I fell in love with Leandre and his host family....We can attest that he certainly has the ability to be heard...his host family especially. I have been working with cleft babies for 14 years and will have my very first experience as a host mom next week with a 11 month old from Ghana with a cleft. Thank you for all that you do! Rebecca

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