Lament to measles

Nazan Bilgel
Uludag University, Bursa, Turkey (Winter 2014)

 

I am the sorrowful, dull winter sun
Resting silently on the naked branches of the trees
Warming and soothing
Villages, roads, and mountain stones.
I saw a village far away
Behind the mountains, you couldn’t know

So described the poet Ceyhun Atuf Kansu himself when he saw so many dying children because of measles1. Although a simple preventable childhood disease, measles was a major cause of child mortality in Turkey during the period 1930-1990.2 He acknowledged more about this village and its children in these lines:

I have seen this village, under the roves of its houses
Children are blossoming measles
Their eyes, breasts, and faces are like abandoned fields
Looking so innocent through the poppies

He pointed out that all of these children were innocent and not aware of dying. In the following lines the tears poured from his pen as he wrote:

They are ignorant of measles and death
Ignorant of blooming death on their dirty faces
And suddenly they become wilted roses
Infants dying without any knowledge of death

He felt the deep sorrow of seeing 23 children die in one day. He knew them all, and called them all by their names. The death of rosy Rose affected him greatly. For him, all the boys were graceful and the girls were like flowers but now they have all gone. Desperation, disappointment, and shame overflow throughout these lines:

I let myself come down from the hill singing my sad song
I let myself fall down as in death
How could I rise again after this grief?
How could I return to this village?
I was falling down and covering
The children, the ignorant children lying under the snow
You have not seen them, I couldn’t tell you, and I am shuddering
Their lips were open to say something

These children did not die from hunger or floods. They died unnoticed, not before the television cameras. There was no public outrage, no demand for action. He was angry, angry because of this ignorance. Someone should take responsibility and be brought to account for these deaths. Therefore he asked:

Ah, one day I will come down from the hills
Will reach you and stand before you
I will ask intellectuals, physicians, and teachers
I will ask someday, I will ask these children
Where were you on this desperate, dark and lonely day?
When I was distraught and ashamed
Grieving deeply above this village
Where have you been my master?
I have seen 23 little deaths on one day
In this village due to measles
And you, what have you seen? Say it, say it
Say something; say something from far, far away!

He is the sorrowful winter sun who knew so much, who saw so many dying children. He carries all the crimes and lives above the darkness, and the daylight. Every year in February he will come back to this village and will remember these innocent and ignorant children with tears in his eyes and shame and grievances in his heart.

I will let my tears flow with shame and grievance
Suspended sorrowful and distraught in the air
In the mid afternoon I will float
Down on these little graves
You will not be aware of my sorrow and helplessness
I will say rose, I will make bunches of roses, and yet more roses
On the edge of the road, the graves of 23 children
I will sigh I will cover them with my sighs.

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Ceyhun Atuf Kansu, MD (1919-1978)
Courtesy of Mr. Isik Kansu

Ceyhun Atuf Kansu was a Turkish physician, pediatrician and poet. He was born in 1919 and died in 1978. Graduating in Istanbul and completing his residency in Ankara, he served as a pediatrician in the slum areas for a short period and then worked in other deprived areas of Turkey. He took up the position of physician at the Turhal Sugar Factory. In those days Turhal was a small town (today it has about 86,000 inhabitants) in the central Black Sea region of Turkey. He worked there for more than ten years and became familiar with the common diseases of children in deprived communities. During those years the infant and child mortality rates of Turkey were very high (over 250 deaths per 1000 live births per year). 2The causes of those deaths could be listed on the fingers of one hand 3. Children were dying sunken eyed of dehydration, or gasping from pneumonia, in the iron grip of tetanus, the fever of measles, or on the rack of whooping cough3. These five common diseases, all easy and inexpensive to prevent or treat, accounted for more than two thirds of all child deaths. Most of the poems he wrote between 1947-1978 on the subjects of neglected children, inappropriate child care by illiterate mothers, clumsy health policy and intellectuals who were indifferent to health problems of people living in deprived areas were written during his stay in Turhal4. He was deeply affected by the poverty, illiteracy, and desperation of the women and children. He blamed the intellectuals: teachers, physicians, and politicians sitting in their comfortable offices in the capital city and doing nothing to change this dreadful situation. He also blamed himself and in great desperation wrote his “Lament to Measles”. He believed in the importance of educating women, a principle now accepted by all countries. In his poem “In the Morning of a Village Physician” he wrote these lines5:

They don’t know, don’t know, don’t know
How many times I have rebelled to those mothers
Like the sun risen behind the hill
I should bring the sun to their homes
The shadows of the thoughts come from noon
I say a primary school should be opened in this shadow
That teaches the happiness of living and loving
That teaches the happiness of being alive
Before the mothers bring their dead babies
In the courtyards shadowed by the mulberry trees
The happiness in the blue and green eyes of babies
The light which is divided equally at the beginning, at the birth
Do not go out too early in the hands of the mothers.
Mothers all of the mothers of my country should be educated
They will look after their children better, and well-informed
They will love their children more consciously
Towards noon your troubles have doubled
In the names of mothers, children and citizens
You are tired now

Ceyhun Atuf Kansu was not only a physician but also a teacher. He taught mothers about child health care, and better nurturing. He called himself a village teacher, a gardener who raises children and describes those children as flowers in his poem “All the Flowers of the World.”6

All the flowers of the world,
I am a village teacher, a gardener.
I was watering a garden from my heart,
Nobody knows, nobody understands me.
My roses are blood, life and work
I am not afraid of death and will never be,
You only bring flowers, bring your flowers to me.

Ceyhun Atuf Kansu was a solitary fighter struggling against ignorance, premature deaths, superstition, and social deprivation. His approach to medicine was socially dominated rather than bio-medically and this socio-medical approach is apparent in his poems. Besides his many volumes of poetry (some of them are: In a Garden of a Child, 1941; Sad Song, 1951; Notebook of June 1955; From my Country, 1960; The Rose of Independence, 1966; Wheat, Woman, Rose and Sky, 1970) he also wrote essays (Letters to a Village Teacher, 1964; Ataturk and the War of Independence, 1969; My Honey Daughter, My Branch Son 1971; The Love Apple, 1972) and medical books which are about child nurture (Child Nurturing in the Turhal Area, 1954; Mothers are Asking, 1959; Child Nurture in Small Towns and Villages, 1961).

Every time I read his poem “Lament to Measles” I feel grief. I find this poem very passionate, even though in Turkey measles has become history and no longer kills babies. In 2011 only 105 cases of measles were reported in Turkey and all were imported cases, none fatal.7 It is a great achievement to have gone from over 500,000 measles cases and hundreds of deaths in 1969 to 105 measles cases and no deaths in 2011. With continued use of the measles vaccine, used in Turkey since 1970 and included in the routine immunization program for children in 1985, measles could soon be completely eliminated.8 The wish of Ceyhun Atuf Kansu, MD will then have come true. Once when talking with his friends he asked them: 9 “How many of my poems will be remembered tomorrow? In order to please me some said 4 to 5 poems. I really don’t know what I will leave for future generations. In my poems the content is more important than the form, despite form generally being more important in poetry in aiding memorization. For example, my well-known poem ‘Lament to Measles’ will someday be forgotten, because there will be no children dying of measles and my poem will lose its sensitivity and function. Nevertheless, I prefer to be forgotten rather than there be a continuation of deaths due to measles.”

Yes, his dreams have been realized, but his poem should not be forgotten, because it is so beautiful, so realistic and so influential. Furthermore, measles, the killer of children is still waiting in the shadows to catch the poor and powerless. In the world as a whole more than 20 million people are still affected by measles each year. Only 65% of countries in the world have measles vaccine coverage for more than 90% 8 but we are still wasting vast sums of money on meaningless wars. Yes we are masters and mistresses sitting in our comfortable offices far, far away and watching the rosy roses become wilted. I hope “Lament to Measles” of Ceyhun Atuf Kansu will break the ice that has covered our hearts.

 

References

  1. Kansu Ceyhun Atuf. “Lament to Measles”. In: Anthology of 20th Century Turkish Poetry. Editor: Ilhami Soysal, 1988, pp. 249-251. Ankara: Bilgi Publishing (Reference in Turkish).
  2. Turkish Government & UNICEF Cooperation Program. Country Program 1991-1995. “The State of Mothers and Children in Turkey”,1991, p. 174. Ankara: Yenicağ Publishing (Reference in Turkish).
  3. UNICEF. “The State of World’s Children 1990”. Available at: http://www.unicef.org Retrieved on 13 November 2012.
  4. Şahbaz, Namık Kemal. “Türkçe öğretimi açısından Ceyhun Atuf Kansu’nun çocuk şiirleri (Children poems of Ceyhun Atuf Kansu in terms of Turkish Language Education)”. TUBAR-XIII (2003):351-370. (Article in Turkish).
  5. Kansu Ceyhun Atuf. “Morning of a village physician”. In: Notebook of June, 1955, pp. 3-9. Ankara: Varlık Publishing (Reference in Turkish).
  6. Kansu Ceyhun Atuf. “All the Flowers of the World”. In: Anthology of 20th Century Turkish Poetry. Editor: Ilhami Soysal, 1988, p. 251-253. Ankara: Bilgi Publishing (Reference in Turkish).
  7. WHO Regional Office for Europe. “Centralized Information System for Infectious Diseases (CISID)”.
  8. Available at: http://data.euro.who.int/cisid. Retrieved on 13 November 2012.
  9. WHO. “Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals”. Available at: http://www.who.int/immunization/topics/measles/en/index.html. Retrieved on 13 November 2012
  10. Akbal, Oktay. “For Ceyhun Atuf Kansu”. Cumhuriyet Newspaper, 13 November 1998, p. 2. (Reference in Turkish).

 


 

NAZAN BILGEL, MD was born November 24, 1954 in Ankara, Turkey. She graduated from Ankara University Medical Faculty in 1978. She finished her specialization training on public health and preventive medicine at the same university in 1982. After her compulsory service in the eastern part of Turkey she was attended to Uludag University Faculty of Medicine as a lecturer in 1984. In the year 1993 she became full time professor at the same university. Same year she visited USA as a fellow of Eisenhower Exchange Fellowships program. She is still working as full time professor at Uludag University Faculty of Medicine and is the head of the Department of Family Medicine. Her interest areas are women’s health, domestic violence, public health education & promotion and social inequity. She is a member of APHA and EURACT.

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