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Cavilla, Benin 2001


Cavilla was from a stilt village in one of Benin’s rivers. The 3-year-old’s tragic journey made a life-long impact on Sonja Dawson, a nurse who recounts how she reunited with Cavilla’s family 15 years later.

‘Cavilla received free surgery on board in 1994 for an enormous eye tumour,’ recalls nurse Sonja. ‘When she and her Mum did not return to the ship to have her sutures removed as scheduled, we went to find her.’

‘Mama had delivered a baby, but couldn’t leave the maternity clinic because she didn’t have the $5 to pay for her care. We paid then checked on Cavilla only to find she had developed a wound infection. We brought Cavilla, Mama and the new baby back on board the Mercy Ship Anastasis.

‘Cavilla was admitted to the ward and placed on IV antibiotics when she unexpectedly had a respiratory arrest. We resuscitated her and put her on a ventilator, and asked the ship community to pray. Early the next morning I drove Mama home with a translator to explain the seriousness of the situation and ask Papa to come.

‘During that night, little Cavilla’s heart stopped. Although we tried desperately, we could not bring her back to life. The nurses and doctors were discouraged. I was angry at God. Why did she have to die? After all, we prayed – and we had all tried so hard. We committed the situation to God. Why didn’t He help? I was comforted by John 12:24 Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.

‘We took the family back to their Muslim village, where there was a lot of wailing and the whole village came out to grieve with the parents.

‘When we returned for the funeral with a 50 kg bag of rice we were beckoned to sit on the mat in front of the seven elders and the Chief. I had rather wet eyes, and although making no sound, I was told by the Chief to stop crying; after all, she was not my daughter!

‘Through the translator, we understood Cavilla’s father reprimanded them for not helping with money to get Cavilla to hospital in their moment of need. He said a group of strangers cared more for his daughter. He recounted the movie he saw about a man called Jesus who loved Cavilla more than we did. He explained how many people had prayed for his daughter and ran very fast to try to help her (especially in the emergency situation when her heart stopped). He heard that Jesus loved his daughter and that is why these people were here. He wanted to know more about this Jesus.

‘We returned to the village every Saturday for several weeks. We played with the kids, read Bible stories, sang songs and did primary health care teaching about scabies and worms and hygiene teaching.

‘Then we were summoned to the Chief’s house. Some kids had red urine, we were told. What could we do?

‘They toileted in the river they swam in, so we got permission to take samples to test in the ship’s lab – they were positive for parasites. As we explained the importance of using latrines we asked about their clean water source and were told the pump had been broken for several months. The ship’s engineering department located the part needed to fix the water pump. We facilitated village discussions about how they could maintain the pump by charging a small amount for the water and keeping the money aside for maintenance. We even took the Jesus film to the village and had an open-air screening. That was the most excitement that village had ever had!

‘Before the ship left Benin, we gave Cavilla’s Mum some money to set up a small business selling fuel to help fund her children to go to school. To Alphonse, the one man in the village that could speak and read French, we gave a Bible.

We located someone who worked on the other side of the river willing to visit the village after we left with Bible stories and teaching. The villagers built a bamboo and palm leaf structure to have church gatherings.

Sonja and her husband returned to volunteer on the Africa Mercy in 2016. They were in Benin, so Sonja visited Cavilla’s family, who had remained so much in her heart and thoughts over the years. In the village, she met several old friends. Alphonse who explained the difference Mercy Ships visit and Jesus had made in his life. The Jesus film has been shown in the nearby villages, there were Bible studies and a church building. A pastor from Porto Novo now holds Church services in the unfinished concrete church building.

‘Cavilla’s Mama now has a tin roof on her shack, instead of palm leaves, and her son is now working the family’s fields to support her and the 6 children.

If not for Cavilla, the water pump would not have been repaired; the village would still be drinking the same water they were washing in, perpetuating cycles of infection and sickness amongst the children and adults alike.’

Little Cavilla left a hole in the world and a legacy that outlived her.

Story by Sonja Frischknecht Dawson

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