It took mere moments. A baby’s small open mouth and a drop of liquid. A baby’s warm arm and a small injection. It took that to save the lives of the babies born that year in my village, and in the villages around us and those far from us, in Calabar and Enugu and Kaduna. It took that to save my life. I was born in 1986. I often tried to imagine myself being immunized, in my mother’s arms, in the new clinic the minister built. Women filled the passages. The treatment was free. At the other end was the family planning unit where nurse was talking to a roomful of women, sometimes making jokes that made them laugh. My mother joined them.
Years later, she told me that the reason I did not die was that small injection in my arm, but the reason I was able to go to school was family planning. My sister was born two years after me, and my brother two years after her, and my mother remembered the words of the family planning nurse who told her to “have the number of children that you can train well. Otherwise you will not be able to train even one of them well.”
Because of the Minister, my father came to know Nigeria well. The Minister went to other interior villages and towns, and my father drove him through the flat roads of the North and the undulating roads of the south. He followed the Minister to the clinics, watched him speaking, gesticulating, explaining, cutting ribbons to open health centers.
Everywhere they went, people followed the Minister. Some just wanted to touch him, to shake his hands. Others brought gifts. “No, no,” the minister said to my father, when he saw the yams and plantains and chickens. “Give it back to them. Tell them that they should keep it for me.”
I first met the Minister when I was six years old. I was in Primary One, and my father told him I came first in class and the Minister asked him to bring me to his house. I expected to wait in the kitchen, and felt awkward to be asked into the living room, into the sinking softness of the carpet and the smell of clean and new things. He appeared with his wife, both of them smiling. They gave me a book. A Childs Illustrated Book About The Body.
“Thank you, sir, thank you, ma,” I said, holding the book tighter than I had ever held anything in my young life.
Sister Chioma was squeezing my hand.
“So you knew him personally,” she said. “I finished nursing school the year he was appointed Minister.”
Her tone was different, less flat, more emotional. It was then I noticed that Sister Chioma, unsmiling, hard Sister Chioma, had tears in her eyes.
“It was because of Olikoye Ransome-Kuti that so many people in Nigeria did not die,” she said quietly, and I knew she had her own story about the Minister. Perhaps she would tell me the story later, or perhaps she would not, but it pleased me that we had a story in common.
“He was the best health minister this country has ever had,” she said, standing up and hastily wiping her eyes. My contractions were now shorter and sharper. Sister Chioma said it was perhaps time to push, and she got up to call the doctor.
Outside the rain continued to fall gently until Olikoye was born.
This story originally appeared in The Art of Saving a Life, a collection of stories about how vaccines continue to change the course of history, commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.