Contributed by Christian Somakpo, Act | West Program Officer in Benin; Translated from French and edited in English by Zubin Hill, Communications Specialist
39-year-old Xavière Sokpon works as a laboratory technician in Benin. A modern-day wonder woman who never shrinks from her role, Sokpon accompanies medical staff as they respond to care requests from patients in distress. This work can require Sokpon to be in the community for up to ten days, sometimes visiting several distant sites in a single day. T hese visits are not for the faint of heart, as there can be few amenities.
"[This job] is perfect for me,” Sokpon said. “[A]s I’m very outgoing by nature and interested in meeting others, I enjoy the visits and the chance to go beyond the four walls of my laboratory.”
Born in the small town of Aklanpka in south-central Benin, Sokpon comes from a family of modest means. From early on, her teacher father instilled in her a love of learning and of a job well done. Eager to pursue her passion for science, Sokpon entered the Polytechnic School of Abomey Calavi (EPAC) and graduated with a professional degree in Biomedical Analysis in 2010. As the eldest of four, Sokpon took her position seriously and quickly entered the workforce to be able to help support her family.
In February 2012, while at her second job out of school, she was offered a position at the Glazoué Health Center by the National Program for Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases. And in the decade since, Sokpon has participated in a host of activities, from a Transmission Assessment Survey 1 (TAS1) carried out in 23 communes to lymphatic filariasis mapping and schistosomiasis/soil-transmitted helminthiasis surveys.
There’s a saying in French, ‘c’est à l’œuvre qu’on reconnait l’artisan’ which literally means ‘it is through their work that the craftsman is recognized.’ In English, the saying, ‘actions speak louder than words’ comes to mind. This idiom certainly proved true for Sokpon, whose drive and professionalism has been recognized by her colleagues. Regarding her work, Sokpon has no shortage of anecdotes.
"While in the local context, we can come across situations that test our composure and require us to adapt in the moment," Sokpon said. For example, she recounts an incident that occurred in October 2020 when her team was at a school in Adja Ouèrè in south-eastern Benin as part of a lymphatic filariasis Transmission Assessment Survey 2 (TAS2).
"Following our standard procedure when working in a community, we met the public security forces and the local authorities such as the village chief, local elders, community leaders, etc. They had been well informed of our coming and we explained the reason for our presence to them again. [W]e were expecting a good day's work,” Sokpon said. “[O]ur team was completing filariasis test strips [FTS] for children at the school when, out of nowhere, a furious parent burst into the schoolyard … and accus[ed] us of colluding with sorcerers to provide blood to a deity named Kinninsi.”
In order to minimize occurrences like Sokpon’s, social mobilization and community engagement are required before all USAID-sponsored health activities in a community. This engagement can involve meeting with local leaders, such as the meeting described by Sokpon, as well as the distribution of banners or other visual reminders of an ongoing health activity; community-awareness raising by town criers, and radio and television broadcasts that provide information on the disease being targeted, and logistical details.
These social mobilization and community engagement activities are organized to ensure strong participation and turn-out for a
given health campaign. And while the channels of communication vary depending on the most effective way to reach the target population, health workers like Sokpon are always careful to inform locals of any events or activities happening in their community.
“[W]e called the police who arrived immediately with the village chief and some parents,” Sokpon said. “The [man] was calmed down and we were able to speak with him. He apologized for his behavior but remained opposed [to our work]. So we invited him to see for himself what the activity was and realize that none of the blood … was offered to any deity.”
This engagement strategy proved effective—so effective that the man, after observing the TAS2 attentively, asked the team to administer the test on his son as well.
“We then had to explain that his son wasn’t part of the age group targeted [for the TAS2],” Sokpon said. “He told us that he knew out-of-school village children in the targeted age group and offered to bring them. We thanked him but explained that our survey is only conducted in schools and that there are other surveys that target the community. We parted ways with smiles and jokes, certain that the work against lymphatic filariasis had just gained a fervent defender."
While her work in the heart of the most remote communities has never been easy, Sokpon remains proud of all she’s accomplished professionally. Sokpon is a perfect example of a skillful worker who works without drawing attention to herself. Without local community actors like her, Benin’s neglected tropical disease elimination objectives could never be achieved.