There is a little boy at the hospital right now named Omarou. When he was very young (about 18 months), he crawled into a pot of boiling oil, and his hand was badly burned. Unfortunately, this is something that happens very often here in Niger. When you combine the fact that there are lots of babies (Niger has one of the highest birthrates in the world) with the fact that most people here cook over an open fire, the results can be devastating. Consequently, we see a lot of burn victims at the CURE hospital.
Omarou’s mother makes and sells peanut oil to help support her family, so in their house there is always a pot of boiling oil. When Omarou was burned, they took him to a local clinic, but his hand wasn’t treated properly. They cleaned the burn, but then wrapped it up tight in gauze and sent him home. So the wounds did heal, but the skin on his fingers all healed together, and he was left with a hand that he wasn’t really able to use. Omarou is now 5 years old, so he has lived with this disability for a long time. Thankfully, Omarou’s parents heard about the CURE hospital through some friends, and heard that his hand could be healed. So they saved up enough money for Omarou and his father Boukary to make the 700-kilometer trip from their village to Niamey.
Usually, our patients are accompanied by their mothers or grandmothers and not by their fathers, so it really stood out when Omarou showed up with Boukary. Of course there are exceptions to this, but generally mothers have much more to do with their children than fathers here in Niger. In fact, there have been many cases at our hospital where mothers have had to convince their husbands to allow their children to come for treatment. Sometimes they bring them to the hospital without telling their husbands because they know that they would be against it. Often it is an issue of money (the husbands are unable or unwilling to come up with money for their children to be treated), but sometimes there are other issues involved as well. Either the children are seen as disposable, not worth investing in, or their disability is seen as the result of God’s will. After all, who can go against God’s will?
And even when father do accompany their children to the hospital, it is pretty rare to see them interact much with them. An example: at one point we had quite a few fathers at the hospital at once, so we tried to organize a game of football with the fathers and their kids. We got everything ready, but in the end there wasn’t a single father that was willing to come out and play with the children. We tried to convince them, but they just laughed at the idea. Culturally, it was unthinkable for these men to play with their own children.
But Boukary is different.
Not only did he come with Omarou to the hospital, but he is also very nurturing towards him, and really lavishes him with attention. Omarou is at his side constantly, and often hides in the folds of his robes (Omarou is kind of shy). It is really sweet to see how much love and attention Boukary gives to Omarou, and it was something that definitely stood out. But I still wasn’t prepared for the shock I received when they came to an art therapy session.
I tried many times to get Omarou to come and do an art therapy session, but he was always too scared. A few times he took some paper and crayons from me and went off to color at the patient guesthouse, but he would never stay with me. Then one day last week, he came for a session and Boukary came with him! I cannot even begin to explain how excited I was – this was certainly a first. We did a few things together, but after a few minutes, Boukary started painting Omarou’s cast, and I basically withdrew to the sidelines to watch. It was such a precious sight, and I feel so privileged that I was able to witness such a special moment between this father and son.
It may seem like a small thing, but in this culture, and this context, Boukary painting Omarou’s cast was huge. When the session was done they returned to the patient guesthouse, and both of them were beaming with pride, anxious to show their work to the other patients (and other parents). Everyone cheered for them!
I was so excited because this is a great example of the kind of healing that art therapy can do. It certainly wasn’t anything I did, all I did was watch. But the art therapy room was able to provide a space for this interaction to take place, something that wouldn’t really be able to take place outside of it. Father and some were able to come together to make something beautiful, but the most beautiful thing of all was their coming together.