As DR Congo takes a vital step toward eradicating the scourge of polio, Evariste and Marie-Josée tell Gavi’s Fred Tissandier why the inactivated polio vaccine is so critical to securing a healthy future for their children.
Marie-Josee Watusolele (52) and her husband, Evariste Mputu (62), sit at their home in the Lemba neighbourhood of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Marie-Josee makes dolls, such as this one, which she sells to earn a living. Photo: Gavi/2015/Phil Moore
Today I met Evariste and Marie-Josée. They have been husband and wife for 29 years with three sons who go to school and are doing very well in their exams. It sounds like the perfect family and they are indeed very happy. But, as we talk, I learn that their true story is far from perfect.
Both Evariste and Marie-Josée contracted polio as young children: Evariste when he was only three years-old, his wife at the age of 8. He needs a bicycle chair to move around while Marie-Josée needs crutches to walk.
Now 52 years-old, Marie-Josée can still remember the physical pain and also how her parents divorced because of her illness. She recalls how the local neighbourhood said that a spell had been cast on her as she was the only one in the family to catch polio. She reflects sadly on the reality of growing up alone, with crippled legs that blocked her from having a normal life.
Evariste’s story is very different because his father always supported him and his family respected him in spite of his handicap. As the older son, his words were always listened to and orders followed. Now 63 years-old and retired, he looks back at his life with pride. He worked, had decent jobs and nobody would take much notice of his legs.
In contrast, Marie-Josée is more bitter. For her it was difficult to find work. She tried to get a diploma in sewing but never finished the course. Occasionally, she sold goods at the market, but it was difficult because people did not help her. Money was always scarce.
Today, Marie-Josée still works, sewing African rag dolls that she sells for 12 dollars each at the market.
The income lets her subsist but, with two of her sons still at school, it is not enough. She also needs to buy new braces as the ones that she wears hurt her feet while Evariste wants a new chair bicycle. His current one dates back to 1963.
Marie-Josee shows her orthopaedic leg braces as she sits in the yard of her home. Whilst she can walk with the braces, she said it is very painful to wear them for extended periods. Photo: Gavi/2015/Phil Moore
Meeting Evariste at their local church was a dream come true. When Marie-Josée talks about their first meeting, there is a light in her eyes that matches the one in Evariste’s eyes. They named their last son who is now 15 “Dieu Merci” (“Thanks God”).
Evariste and Marie-Josée explained to me that they are thankful for all the good things given to them. When I asked if they have one regret, they immediately answered that it was not being vaccinated against the scourge of polio.
All their children have received the oral polio vaccine and they constantly advocate for immunisation. They see the introduction of the inactivated polio vaccine as an important moment for DR Congo even if they could not see the images of the launch on television as they don’t have power in their neighbourhood.
“If a vaccine had existed when we were young we would not have been like this” said Evariste.
Thanks to Handicap International for their support in this story as well as the Réseau des Comités de Réadaptation (RCR) and more specifically Pauline Tshunza.