14th Jul 2020 8:23:28 AM

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Busisiwe C
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Evelyn Minto Essono's
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Rien ne Dit
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Evelyn Minto Essono's
Main Pic

After Evelyn was attacked with acid in Gabon in a case of mistaken identity, she wondered if her life would ever be normal again.

She lived with charity director Bronwen and her son Tristan for a couple of years in South Africa and underwent major surgery.

She returned to her home country and then set off for the USA for more surgery. The birth of her son Bradly-Michael (pictured here in November 2009) and the chance to study in California, USA, shows that life can come right after the cruelty that she has endured.

Evelyne Minto was severely burned on October 18th 1998 when bandits threw acid over her. People at her former workplace, radio station Africa no. 1, suggested that there might have been a scorned lover involved in the attack - but this appeared later to be merely malicious rumour. The only luck that Evelyne had had, was that she was injured before the hospital strike and an expatriate doctor had allowed her to stay in the building and receive some minimal care when all the other wards were closed.

By mid March this year, Evelyne had expected that her left eye would be removed. Beyond that there were no skin grafts proposed because the doctors don't know how to carry them out and say that they have no facilities to do so.

Evelyne was once beautiful but now she cannot smile. She no longer has complete lips and much of her nose is lost too, due to the burning. The skin is thickened and taut with scarring around her neck so she cannot turn her head properly. The neck muscles are contracting daily. Her face, neck, arms and chest are mottled black and pink where the acid landed. There is minimal scarring elsewhere where the acid splashed, but it also prevents her from properly moving both elbows.

In our initial brief meeting the translation was not accurate. I understood that Evelyne said that her family could maybe try to raise some money for her treatment elsewhere in Africa. However if her relatives had had any significant money she would not have been left in the sorry situation in which I found her. Soungalo Coulibaly, a local security guard who had actually trained as a lawyer, seemed to symbolise the incongruity of a nation with so much potential but so little hope. At my request he stepped in to battle the bureaucrats, when I decided to seek help for Evelyne overseas. He was not paid for his help and he had not previously known Evelyne.

In the hospital her left eye was loosely covered with a patch of gauze and I was told it would be cut out. My instinct was that it might have useful preservable vision if appropriate specialists could help. The other eye is fine.

If the Gabonese had removed Evelyne's left eye, there is no facility in the country to even provide her with a glass eye.

The doctor who took me to see Evelyne said there are many other burns cases but because there is no one to help patients, once they have had the most basic of treatment, they return to their homes, devoid of all hope and subject to ridicule.

When I was talking to a friendly young woman in the Okoumé Palace hotel bookshop, about how South African Dorah Mokoena had been helped surgically after burns and showed her a photo that demonstrated the medical success to date, her colleague came to look and burst out laughing. She thought four year old Dorah's appearance was material for mockery. Another well-educated Gabonese female doctor described Dorah to others as 'une monstre'.

Beyond problems of medical help, there is absolutely no psychological help for victims disfigured by burning. Nor indeed psychological help for the people who demonstrate their intolerance so openly.

Of course there are many other problems.

I visited the home of a prominent socialite, who said, bluntly: 'Eighty per cent of the population is poor. How can the government be expected to care for the one per cent who are disabled as well?'

Her home had elephant tusks under the coffee table, a large buffalo skull on the floor, more gold-pleated and frilled cushions than sofa space, more silk flowers than her frail and aged mother-come-domestic servant can dust in a day. The walls were covered with large photos of herself and casually displayed snapshots of 'Oh that was the President's wedding'. The flat screen latest hi-tech TV was vast; the top quality French crockery all imported and the Harrods mugs scattered between the ornaments.

How indeed could the government and its friends have time for people like Evelyne?

Gabon also has a high incidence of malaria and South African pharmacists suggest travellers there should take measures against cerebral malaria. I chose only to take a combination of paludrine and nivaquine but not the medicine said to protect against cerebral malaria because of its reportedly severe side effects. Nonetheless I carried insect repellent with me in case I had to be outside beyond dusk… like the evening I was invited to the home of Dr Mary Bivegue.

She is a medical doctor who has lived for more than 20 years in Charbonnage hills, Gabon. Last year and for the previous 12 years, she had a house full of mentally disabled children. She started to help others when she saw there was no provision for her own mentally disabled child. After five letters to the President Omar Bongo's wife, seeking help, she finally got an answer and Mrs Bongo set up a home for the children.

Dr Bivegue kept her own 14 year old son Alexandre with her and then started to take in orphans, abused children, abandoned babies until again her house was full. Alexandre sleeps away from the other children because he is a potential risk to their safety when he gets angry.

Dr Bivegue usually has between ten and fifteen children and struggles to feed and clothe them on her salary and rare but welcome one-off donations. The house is clean but terribly threadbare. Dr Bivegue employs a young man at her own cost, to teach all the children together. She once had some financial assistance from a Canadian organisation. Beyond that there are no automatic rights for children in Gabon.

Rudy Daniel Abé, a six year old boy whose mother had died from Aids (Le Sida) and whose father was slowly dying the same way, is Dr Birogue's latest foundling. The other children with her are Carole, age 3. Her mother was only 15 and has no job. Yann age 4 and his brother Boris, age 7, have an alcoholic father and a mentally disturbed mother. Audrey has no known mother but her grandmother would still care for her if she had the means to.

Teddy, age 6, has an alcoholic father, a brother on drugs and his mother seems incapable of looking after him. Elvis, age 11, was brought in by an aunt as his mother is supposedly studying overseas. Gloire, age 4, has no parents.

Alice, age 4, was brought in by her sister as her mother is mentally disturbed.

Massa, age 10, and an orphan, is already a stoic mother figure. She shares a bedroom with Rudy and helps him as he cries through the night.

Celestin teaches the children each day.

Dr Bivegue asked me for help but I said I was not a miracle worker and that South Africa also has large numbers of abandoned children. But I pledged to try to help Evelyne.

Beyond the small city lies the forest. Eighty five per cent of Gabon is forested and beneath the chattering canopy of green leaves and creepers, live some 1000 pygmies. They seem not to be considered part of the population or 'real' Gabonese. As to whether they mind or not, I don't know as I did not have the chance to meet any.

Compared with some other African countries, people in Gabon are quite lucky. They attend primary school for six years followed by seven years of secondary school where possible. After three years of university they gain a licence; after four years a masters; after seven years they become a Dr d'etat of their subject and a PhD can follow that.

The population has 50 per cent literacy overall with about 90 per cent literacy among young people. There are 45 local languages in four to five main linguistic groups but primary schooling is only in French.

English is introduced in the first year of secondary school and in the third year pupils choose between chemistry or Spanish. The French encourage learning Spanish because Spain is their neighbour in Europe and Spanish is also spoken in Equatorial Guinea.

At university yet more languages are introduced with the choice between Portuguese and German. English is not a mainstay but is now becoming more popular. Gabon still does not have enough scientists though it has two universities specialising in science. The country has twelve main political parties but about 30 minor ones. Omar Bongo secured 64 per cent of the vote in the December elections and the mayor of Libreville came in second with a mere 13 per cent of the vote. The country prides itself on political stability. For example Zacharie Myboto, minister of construction (which includes roads) has been in the job for 27 years. The roads are in an appalling state but there are some beautiful mansions and palaces. People allege that a romantic link between his daughter and one of the most powerful people in the country helps keep Myboto in his job. To outsiders it seems that the French remain largely in control of the economy and colonialism has simply been replaced by different forms of control. Television programmes are all in French (and mostly produced in France) with the exception of part of an African pop music / video channel. News footage is notable in that it covers countries hardly ever featured on South African or even on British television. It is equally remarkable for being such dull, poor quality filming. Nonetheless it was a pleasant shock to learn that something actually happens in countries such as Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, Burkina Faso and so on - because of their almost total absence from our screens here. The Gabonese home coverage was parochial in the extreme with a small car crash in Libreville seeming to be the focus of one bulletin. There is only one local daily newspaper; L'union, a 16-page 2-colour tabloid. It is seriously uninspiring - from layout to content and writing style. There is also an occasional newspaper published by the party in power. And Esprit d'Afrique is a relatively new fortnightly newspaper hoping to rival L'union one day.

Everywhere one sees Omar Bongo T-shirts and Omar Bongo wristwatches. The remnant freebies from another successful election campaign. They must have cost a fortune to import. A fortune that could have been spent to secure surgery for someone like Evelyne.

The level of ignorance and intolerance among the general population of those who look unsightly, as in South Africa, is like an abyss of cruelty. But to ignore the attitudes and not to seek real change would be to deny one's own humanity.

Evelyne is now in South Africa. With assistance from Netcare and the staff at Sunninghill Hospital, she had her first operation, to save the sight in her left eye and to start to reintroduce mobility to her left shoulder and elbow.

From this Easter, a future of abject misery for one young African has changed into a horizon of hope.

This material is Copyright © The Dorah Mokoena Charitable Trust and/or Children of Fire , 1998-2020.
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