LAGOS—Nigerian women have held the fabric of their society together for decades. From the likes of Fumilayo Ransome Kuti, who fought for women’s access to education and political representation, and against dictatorship—and was the country’s first woman to drive a car—to Dora Akunyili, who served as director of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control and ardently fought to eradicate the production and sale of counterfeit drugs and unsafe food, they have been at the front of societal transformation and progress. But women in Nigeria still lag hugely behind in quality of life, health and political leadership. How is it possible to achieve a developed and sustainable nation when half the population is left behind?
The following is an adaptation of remarks I delivered at ICWA’s semi-annual gala on June 2 at the Cosmos Club, Washington, DC.
On March 6, a colossal head of an ancient pharaoh was uncovered in a 10-meter deep pit in the city of Matariya, an hour north of Cairo. The excavators wrapped it for protection overnight in a Spiderman blanket, probably the first thing they saw lying around. It was a gift to Egyptian jokers and meme-makers on social media. Such is Egypt in 2017, where the ancient and modern collide on a daily basis. The pharaonic past is inescapable, unearthed in this instance as civil engineers were plotting a new shopping arcade.
PANAMA CITY—I stare at my doctor in disbelief. He’s supposed to provide the best prenatal care in all of Panama. And he’s telling me, at eleven weeks pregnant during my first prenatal appointment, that I don’t need a blood test for the Zika virus.
I’ve traveled here from a remote community in Bocas del Toro, Panama—an outpost for backpackers, surfers, outlaws, and an uneasy mix of Afro-Caribbean and indigenous cultures. By US standards, I’m nearly a month tardy for my first prenatal exam. But getting to decent medical care is time-consuming and expensive, so I hope to combine necessary tests for this trip. I’m at the only hospital in Latin America affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, believing it will be my best shot at keeping this growing baby safe as the threat of disease rises.
“You don’t need to worry about Zika there,” the doctor says, leaning back confidently in his desk chair. “It’s really only in the indigenous communities.”
But Panama is the only country in the Americas with increasing reported cases of Zika. In the rural archipelago where we have lived on Oleada for the past four months, there have been 11 reported cases. That statistic makes me nervous: due to a combination of painfully limited state resources and reputedly poor healthcare, very few people see a doctor in Bocas. The hospital at the edge of town reflects the sorry state of medical care here: it’s crumbling into the unmown grass and trash scattered across the property. The facility is unable to test for Zika in Bocas, so any reported cases must travel elsewhere and self-identify for the test, which costs the equivalent of $150, a flabbergasting amount by local standards. In an area of only 2,000 people densely packed into a single settlement, 11 reported cases likely reflects only a tiny, eerie shadow of a much larger epidemic.
BOCAS DEL TORO, Panama—We hear the buzz of the motor closing in. Both Josh and I stand up instinctively, peering into the inky blackness for the invisible boat. We’ve just finished eating at our little teak table in the cockpit, enjoying the dark ensconce of the warm, humid evening. I see only reflected yellow lights from town. The whine of the outboard screams toward us, the noise building exponentially. I search the water, confused: the engine is opened up, full throttle. It shouldn’t be coming straight at us, I think, but my ears tell me otherwise.
“JESS, LOOK OUT!” Josh cries and reaches out for me.
Like a ghoul in a nightmare, a massive white bow appears perpendicular to Oleada exactly where I stand. I wave my arms in vain to alert a hidden driver. I let out an angry howl, the kind of primal yell that makes my throat hurt for days.
My yell turns to a scream in the fraction of a second between when the boat materializes and when it collides at full speed with Oleada’s hull. It’s a 25-foot cayuco, the kind of massive, narrow open boat that the native Ngobe people carve out of a single immense tree. It hits like a six-foot-wide redwood slamming into our boat at 20 miles per hour. Oleada barely budges—she takes the hit so well that Josh and I aren’t even knocked off our feet. But our dishes fly off the table as the bow rides up into our lifelines, thin rope stronger than steel that lines the edge of the boat to keep us from falling off, before the cord stretches, then springs the cayuco back into the water, stopping it from launching into our cockpit. The inch-thick steel stanchions securing the lifelines remain bent from the effort to repel the boat as it slides back into the black water.
Josh is still yelling as I stare in amazement at the edge of Oleada, expecting it to be torn in two. The cayuco that just hit us drifts alongside, the motor still chugging. Josh rushes to the side of the boat.
“Amigo! Amigo! Todo bien? Jess, find a light!”
Staring at this inexplicably violent scene in front of me, Josh’s voice breaks my trance and I rush into the cabin and grab our spotlight. It does not dawn on me how lucky I am to be alive. I am mainly worried that we might be taking on massive amounts of water. I drop to my knees amid shards of wood and fiberglass to run a beam of light along the hull. I expect to see water rushing in; surely our boat, our home, is sinking. But at the waterline and almost all the way up to the joint where the deck meets the hull, Oleada remains clean and white, unharmed. I continue to search the hull with the light, expecting catastrophe, until Josh asks me to search the cayuco.
At first, we don’t see anyone in the boat. A bizarre foreboding fills me as I imagine a driverless boat slamming us in the night. But when I spotlight the massive cayuco up to its majestically proud bow, a body lies in the bottom, splayed face down in the rough-hewn wooden hull in the middle, motionless.
The body moans.