My poisoned son and African reconciliation

Last week my two-year old son was poisoned. Christi had gotten stuck in traffic downtown, so I had come home early from the library (a long 30 second walk) to hold down the fort – sitting at home while the kids play with their friends outside in case someone needs some food or a Band-Aid.

Suddenly, I heard Liam (2) crying. There are nearly a hundred kids in our small apartment complex (maybe thirty of them are around Liam’s age), so there are always kid noises and someone is likely to be crying at any given moment. Still, I managed to recognized Liam’s cry and went outside to see what was happening.  As I turned the corner, one of the bigger girls was carrying him home, but she had trouble explaining what had happened. Then one of the women walked up and said she had been drying cornmeal “cakes” for killing cockroaches in the grass outside her apartment and caught some kids playing in them. Liam was still covered in the chalky dust. He had started to cry and run away when she tried to wash his hands off.

“Did you eat any of the cookies, Liam?” No.

“How did the cookies taste?” (Puzzled I have no clue; I didn’t eat any look.)

At that point I wasn’t really worried, but I took Liam upstairs, washed his hands and changed his shirt. Then we walked back over to the lady’s apartment to find out what the offending chemical was. By the time I got there, a crowd had already gathered in front of the apartment. Two of Liam’s other little friends had been seen with the chalk dust all over their mouths (a Kenyan girl and a Sudanese girl).

I asked to see the poison bottle. One of the mothers started to lash out. “How could you put poison out here when you see so many kids running around!!” (I confess the same thought had crossed my mind; she’s already safely raised three teenagers; what was she thinking?) Fortunately, one of those guys who oozes leadership was thinking the same thing I was. “Let’s focus on getting the name of the chemical,” he said. “After we treat the kids, we can address other issues.”

The poison label turned out to have a rather scary warning, so we

called the campus nurse. She suggested that we give the kids milk then take them to the downtown clinic. I proffered that Liam didn’t look like he had eaten any, and she said that we could simply just watch him for a couple of hours to see if any symptoms emerged. However, the other parents looked more worried, and I had the only car between us, so we all piled in and made the 40 minute drive to the downtown clinic – a Sudanese couple, a Kenyan mom, and me with our kids. They are both new families here, so we made quiet introductory small talk, but the tension of the moment was palpable. Since  I am a veteran of this clinic (I’ve made so many clinic runs at all hours of the night that I’m known by all the doctors and nurses now), I shepherded them through the whole registration process.

After the doctors had checked everyone out and assured us that the kids would be okay, we piled back into the car for the trip home. Only then did I learn how really worried the mothers had been. They suddenly became quite talkative, and the ride home had an almost festive feel to it.

We hadn’t been home for more than ten minutes when the poor “baby poisoner” and her husband came over to make sure that everything was alright. (We found out that prayer meetings had been going on for the kids while we were gone.) Poor lady, she came back the next morning and prayed with us again. She looked terrible. She normally dries her cockroach brew somewhere else, she had been keeping an eye on it all day . . .

What struck me was not so much the fact that she came over to make sure the kids were okay, but the way it was done. It reminded me of something I’ve come to learn and appreciate about all the African cultures that I have lived in. Relationships and the unity of the community are terribly important. When something like this has gone wrong, the cosmos is out of balance until we are sure that there are no hard feelings – that “we are still together.” Yes, the health of the kids was important, but it is just as important to make sure that the health of relationships haven’t been ruptured – with all of the families that have been affected. And once that reconciliation has taken place, the issue is dropped. It’s over. No one’s going to be drying cockroach poison in the apartment complex any more, and no one is going to harbor ill-will against the lady who made the mistake. We are together.

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5 thoughts on “My poisoned son and African reconciliation

  1. John Hobbins says:

    Thanks for this, Ben. It’s a scary but heart-warming account.

  2. David Ker says:

    Man that’s scary I’m glad he’s OK. The cure for cockroaches is to live in a dry climate. Works every time.

  3. Ben says:

    It’s not that dry where you live is it? Maybe you just need to move to a more urban area ;-).’

    I think the $20 we spent on an exterminator was much cheaper; they disappeared for a full year and a half. Unfortunately, not everyone here has that $20.

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