Contributed by Christian Somakpo, Act | West Program Officer in Benin; Translated from French by Zubin Hill
Maman Locotoro (*meaning "mother doctor" in the local languages of Dendi and Bariba), a neat and charming lady with a gaze as sparkling as it is benevolent, imparts a sense of total security to all who see her.
Born in Cotonou, Benin in 1948, Denise Kponton almost crests 74 years old. From her home in the Banikanni district of Parakou, the retired trial clerk has now worked as a community distributor and secretary on the Banikanni Health Center’s Management Committee (GOGECS) for over 13 years. She recently participated in an Act | West-supported digitalized Ivermectin distribution campaign in November 2022. With her teammate, she traveled the four most populated sectors of the vast city district of Banikanni.
Along her distribution route, she leaves behind not only Ivermectin tablets but also a good dose of empathy and humor. "Relieving people of their suffering is a value that has been instilled in me since my childhood," says Kponton.
Her voluntary commitment in Ames Vaillantes, a Catholic youth movement, during her collegiate years in Yaoundé forged her desire to assist in every "humanitarian situation" very early on. While she narrowly missed her vocation to become a health worker, she eventually married an ophthalmologist who showed Kponton the importance of sight. She now participates in the fight against onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness, with pride. “It is a duty for me to continue in the work of my late husband. It is a legacy of the heart," she confides wistfully.
The life of this septuagenarian mother of nine and grandmother of forty-two is different in many ways from most of her neighborhood peers as Maman Locotoro decided to commit to saving the lives of women and children by becoming a community volunteer. As a member of the GOGECS board, Kponton works to promote full community participation in health center activities and to ensure that the conditions for accessible quality care are fully met.
This mission is facilitated by her quasi-permanent presence within the community thanks to her responsibilities as a community distributor.
"I travel between different households in my neighborhood to inquire about the health of my community," Maman Locotoro says. "If I notice any unusual situations regarding the health of any member of the household, I report the information to a health worker and remind the mothers to follow their child's vaccination schedule correctly. This allows me to monitor and above all reduce the mortality rate of children under five due to the main diseases, such as malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia. It should be noted that I am much more specialized in obstetrics, emergency neonatal care in the community, and community care for the malnourished. I also participate in all vaccination campaigns or free distribution of medicines, including the current distribution of Ivermectin."
During the ten-day mass drug administration campaign, Kponton and her teammate will travel eight kilometers a day on average to ward off the shadow of the onchocerciasis that hangs over the community. When asked from where she draws her physical strength at her age, Maman Locotoro answers, "I think I get this strength from my mother who still alive. She is 99 years old and in good health. But it is not only a physical strength, but also mental and moral. It's a state of mind! And this is what I try in turn to transmit to my offspring and all my community distributor colleagues (who I consider my children). They all affectionately call me "Yayi," which means 'Granny' in the Dendi language.”
“In addition to being a pillar for her community, Mrs. Denise is the soul of the Health Center,” the Banikanni Health Center manager says. “She is our lucky charm. She is always available to help. Whenever a dispute arises, and the antagonists see her silhouette in the distance, calm returns and smiles reappear on faces to welcome her because everyone here knows that she dislikes arguments. She is deeply diplomatic; a person of consensus."
On entering the community to learn more about Maman Locotoro from her beneficiaries, another nickname comes to light: Mom Good Mood. This is hardly surprising as her eldest son, better known as the artist "Masta Cool,” is an internationally renowned humorist. This family talent proves to be a major asset for Maman Locotoro’s work as a community distributor because no refusal stands before this woman of unparalleled eloquence who expresses herself with ease in French and seven local languages.
Before leaving for any community activity, Kponton is in the habit of leaving all her worries at the threshold of her house before going to meet people. "It's very important to have a smile on your face when you step through the door of a household that hasn't invited you to their home. People have their own worries that might put them in a bad mood. So if you come to add your worries when you are supposed to contribute to improving their living conditions through the message you carry, your goal will not be achieved," Maman Locotoro says with great conviction.
Without a doubt, this conviviality helped her bring Madame Jacqueline, who was suffering from elephantiasis, from the darkness of her room into the light of day.
"I met Jacqueline during last year's distribution campaign. She was home alone when we visited the household. I noticed immediately that she did not want to leave her room and wanted to be treated inside as if she were hiding from daylight," Kponton continues.
"After chatting with her, I figured out that she was hiding the elephantiasis in her foot that has afflicted her for over 10 years. Subsequent encounters helped me realize how this disability caused by a neglected tropical disease forced her to have a disastrous social life. After referring her to the head of the health center where her elephantiasis was formally diagnosed, I committed to support her not just in the prevention of painful episodes but on a moral and psychological level. Now, I’m proud to see her uninhibited and thriving. She who used to limit her outings for fear of being seen by others, now makes several trips back and forth between her house and the neighborhood college where she works in the canteen. I call her "the Queen of Light" because she won her fight against stigma and courageously moved from darkness to light. It is an immense joy for me to have helped her. This joy I feel in helping others feel better is the fuel of my existence."
Denise Kponton, Maman Locotoro, Mom Good Humor, has given over half of her retirement to community volunteering and she is not about to stop. There are too few inspiring women leaders like her, who are motivated only by the well-being of others. This brave and valiant fighter for equality, from her time as a trial clerk to her current work as a community distributor, has kept her values of mutual aid and solidarity intact. The trial clerk has become a community distributor with an exceptional career.