So I was invited to church during my short vacation for a burial. I spent the entire period catching up on some documents that needed to be read, some correspondences that needed to be replied… until it got to the “intercessional prayer” segment. The pastor prayed for the different demographic and occupational groups. It was difficult for anyone to be left out. One part of the prayers got me though. He prayed that our children would not die in infancy, that we would not bury our children with our own hands, that the eyes of the evil one would not be upon them, that no power of darkness or principalities would shorten their lives in infancy.

Of course, this touched an emotional chord in all those present, and the amen was loud and long. We would all return to our different homes and repeat this prayer fearfully, religiously every morning and night, for we never know when evil forces would decide that it is the turn of our child to die needlessly in infancy. Good, harmless prayer, right? No. At that moment, the pastor was absolutely unconcerned about how many children there are in Nigeria, how many died 10 years ago, 9 years ago, 7 years ago…, where in Nigeria did they die, which season did they die, what killed them, are the causes of death preventable, are we making progress in this prevention, what is the rate of reduction per year in child death per annum in the last 10 years, should we review our strategy and do something new, are we saving the greatest number of children for each naira spent?

As far as Pastor was concerned, child death is a mysterious phenomenon caused by sinister forces that we are helpless against, and can only pray about. It is a pitiable, ignorant and oversimplified reductionist view of life, that is easily sold to poor and desperate persons. In far away Sweden or Norway, they had passed through that phase of helplessness and Ignorance. It is the questions above they now ask in their hospitals and research institutes. You do not have to pray fearfully and specially for your child any longer. Every child in these places has been covered by a combined effort of all the professionals specializing in child care, child growth and development and child protection, in a way that is not mysterious but can be explained in a rational manner to the dullest person on the street. The doctors there do not ask for prayers that give psychological reliefs or the building of more houses of worship to cater to our fears. Instead they ask for more research funding to understand the world around them better and bring it under their control.

The pastor’s prayer is a clear sign of a helpless populace, a reflection of failure of society, failure of government, and failure of the health systems of many low and middle income countries. When each one of us is praying fearfully for our child not to die in infancy, it is a clear sign that there are no institutional and communal mechanisms and systems to take away our worries and allow us to focus on our jobs and lives. The prayers don’t prevent the deaths. They only give us token psychological relief while we wait helplessly for the next random child to die, so that we can go to church on Sunday to give testimonies that our child is better beloved by our family deity. We know fully well that this child is only protected by the wishful thinking of his loving parents, and not by any deliberate institutional mechanisms we have put in place.

Where corruption, poverty, ignorance and institutional failure are gathered, there in their midst you shall find superstition, disease and needless death.

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