This Is Why I Work {A Story of Thanksgiving}

Photo credit: Author

It was 2000 and I was in the Peace Corps.  I was living in a very small rural village in Togo, West Africa.  I was tasked with helping the community and its residents work to prevent the spread of HIV and promote healthy behaviors like hygiene and breastfeeding.  It was a big job for this 22-year-old barely out of college.

As part of my project, I had recruited and helped train 35 community health workers to be like health educators to their friends and family.  Peace Corps has a huge focus on sustainability and ‘teaching people to fish’ instead of giving fish to them.  { If you’re interested in learning more about the Peace Corps, talk to a recruiter or visit their webpage.  Infomercial over.}  There was one woman I hadn’t seen in a while and one day I bumped into her in the market.

The image of her turning around and showing me the baby snuggly tied on her back is etched in my memory.  She told me she was sorry she missed some meetings, but her youngest sister had had a baby.   Her sister died in childbirth, and she took the baby into her care.

I can see her in my mind now, telling me that she was trying to nurse the child but she was too old and she was doing what she could to keep the baby healthy.  She kept making a supplicating motion with her hand –one hand palm up, nested inside the other hand over and over again.  The sign I had learned to mean – I’m trying but it’s hard and God will take care of it.

She took baby out of the wrap to show me.  She was the smallest baby I had ever seen.  Her name was Jacqueline.  Her skin was the color of dark chocolate.  She had such delicate features.  I remember her eyelashes, perfectly created like they had been drawn with a pencil.  She was a beautiful, perfect sleeping baby.

I learned several days later that Jacqueline had died.

My 22-year-old self felt terribly guilty.  I still feel like this.  I should have recognized how sick that baby was and gotten help.  I had money and means and I should have offered to buy an animal that could produce milk or arrange a trip to the hospital or something.  The fact was, I had no experience or training on how to handle these things and I was only 22.  But the feeling lingers: I should have done something.

Why did she die?  Because her mother died.  Because the poverty in Africa is crushing.  Because the basic life necessities and health resources are of poor quality.  Because of political corruption, gender inequality and injustice.  Because maybe something was truly wrong with her that could not have been fixed or prevented — but we’ll never know.

Processing her death, it was like all the pieces of a Rubik’s cube I’d been trying to put together for a long time finally fell into place.  They all distilled down and clicked.  I only saw one path for my career and it was working to help babies and their parents to survive and thrive.

I’ve worked nearly all 12 years’ since then in jobs that at their core work to prevent infant mortality.  One month ago I quit the only job I’d had with a  a different focus to get back to one with a focus on preventing infant mortality.  I feel like I’m home.

How is this story one of Thanksgiving?

I am thankful that I met Jacqueline and for her brief time on this earth.  I’m thankful for all people and experiences along my path that have helped me and others gain clarity and understanding.  I’m thankful to live in a country whose government recognizes the importance of maternal and infant health.  I’m thankful for my job, one created by that government that feels impactful and important.  I’m thankful to be able to say – this is why I work.


  • Shannon says:

    Hands down the best post you’ve written and one that really touches my heart. Every summer from 2000-2005, I went on international mission trips with my church to various places like the Philippines, Peru and Brazil, and I saw crushing poverty, childhood illness, and other injustices that I still think about on a regular basis and wish I could take away. What a blessing that you are doing something you love and something that means so much to you. It honors Jacqueline’s memory.
    Shannon recently posted..Unpaid Maternity Leave and Human RightsMy Profile

  • Mary Beth says:

    Thanks, Shannon. That means a lot. It’s a hard story to tell…. Interesting you mention the Phillippines. I lived there when I was very young – my dad was in the military. That was my first exposure to bone-crushing poverty [right off the base]. That’s another etched memory. Would love to hear some of yours some time… :).
    Twitter: bloombing

  • Lara says:

    Mary Beth- We miss you over here, but this post clearly and very eloquently demonstrates the need to have you doing what you’re doing now.

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