Posted by Marie-Irène Richmond-Ahoua, The Rotary Club of Abidjan-Bietry, Côte d’Ivoire on Sep 17, 2019

We were busy planning a Rotary presidential conference that was to be held in January 2000 in Côte d’Ivoire. We had made arrangements for top government officials to attend, but then, on 24 December, a military coup ousted the president and put General Robert Guéï in charge.

Following the initial panic...

...we waited to see how the situation would evolve. Then the new government announced its priorities: It canceled the National Immunization Days (NIDs) that were scheduled for January and February to coincide with our conference. I was chair of the national PolioPlus committee, so this was a real blow for me.

I talked with the minister of health, who told me that the government had better things to do than to organize NIDs. I answered that the children of Côte d’Ivoire should be our priority, but it didn’t get me anywhere. I tried to plead my case to the new president, but it was impossible to reach him. As a last resort, I decided to pay the new first lady, Rose Doudou Guéï, a visit. Clémentine Anderson, a representative of the World Health Organization’s Expanded Programme on Immunization, came with me.

We thought our best chance to see the first lady was early in the day, so we showed up at the gates of the presidential residence at 9 in the morning. A guard asked us if we had an appointment. We didn’t. He thought we were two crazy women. We didn’t care. We didn’t budge and sat on chairs near the sentry box until we were finally allowed inside, where we again explained the purpose of our visit.

Around 3:30 in the afternoon, we were shown into a parlor to meet with the first lady’s chief of protocol. Again, we had to explain why we were there. Finally, Mrs. Guéï agreed to receive us. I told her, “First Lady, you are a wife, you are a mother. You know how essential it is to organize these NIDs.” She replied, “But what can I do?” We urged her to talk to her husband, reminding her of the persuasive power women have in our country — in fact, our kings are often counseled by their wives. She talked to her husband that evening, and the NIDs were back on the government agenda. She even agreed to attend.

The first lady was not available for the initial NID round in Yopougon, the most populous neighborhood in the city of Abidjan, but Prime Minister Seydou Diarra was there. The second round was to be launched in Korhogo, in the north of the country. We flew from Abidjan in a presidential plane. I was sitting near the first lady and the minister of health. But the airplane experienced mechanical problems, so we had to fly back to the capital and take a different plane. The immunizations started several hours later than scheduled. All that time I worried about the mothers who were waiting for their children to be immunized.

In the years that followed, new challenges arose. There was a rebellion in September 2002, and planned NIDs had to be postponed while we negotiated with the leaders of the rebel forces to get access to the areas under their control. In March 2004, large demonstrations took place to protest the policies of President Laurent Gbagbo. We had planned to launch our NIDs in Man, about 75 miles from the border with Liberia — a country caught up in its own civil war. Rotarians were bailing out, saying it was too dangerous to go there. I convinced one of my cousins to come with me, and we took off in an SUV filled with banners, T-shirts, and hats. Around midnight, we were stopped by an armed soldier. This was the biggest scare of my life. Only when a convoy with Ministry of Health officials showed up did we know we were going to be safe.

Côte d’Ivoire was declared free of polio on 30 November 2015. That was during my term as district governor. It made all those travails worthwhile.

— As told to Alain Drouot

Watch a short interview with Marie-Irène Richmond-Ahoua, The Rotary Club of Abidjan-Bietry, Côte d’Ivoire, and Rotary District Governor 2015-2016 for 10 West African countries. here:


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