Friday, July 23, 2010

Life...the reality

Leprosy stealing helpless limbs.
Petrol burning through the flesh.
Disease leaving children crippled.
Infection seeping through the weak body.
How can one find joy in suffering?
How can one be cured if one has no money?
What if all you are told is to wait for death to come?
What if you lived your life for each second?

Our life is a gift. One day we live the next day we may be dead. The other week a woman died of intestinal cancer. I had visited her a few days before and the only words she said that I could understand were ¨I am just living now;¨ to breathe was life for her, this was living. A few days later during the night all I could hear was the drilling and hammering of the coffin as the men worked through the night to prepare a place for the body. I did not sleep well that night. Like the tiny light bulb in my room that flickers, so is life. It flickers, sometimes only for a moment and other times it gives its last gasp and darkness comes.

Life here in Ariwara for me revolves around the hospital where I am working. My experience here so far after almost 1 month has been life changing for me, in the sense that the way I look at life now has been affected in a profound way. I will share with you a few descriptions of some of my patients:

The Mammas come with feet as hard as rocks from walking barefoot all their lives; backs as stiff as boards from carrying babies on their backs since they were children; bones brittle and aching from carrying heavy loads and walking countless miles. Most of the mammas come once or twice and then their money runs out so they can’t afford the hospital, as is the case with the majority of people here. They come to me always with smiles, without teeth of course, and strong handshakes which bring meaning to my day.

Mamma Suzanne has money to spare. She comes each day dressed elegantly in her brightly coloured panyes and scarves. I commented on her beautiful purple scarf and told her how purple is my favourite colour. The next day she came with a purple scarf for me as a gift. The Africans give much even though they have little. I am always amazed by their generosity. She tells me each visit that she will come by bike to the hospital to stay fit, but she never does.

Papa Bubakari, a butcher from Mali, flashes his enthusiastic smile of crooked yellow teeth as he greets me with continuous ¨Ca Va’s¨ and ¨Tout est bien.¨ He regrets his choice to come and find work in Congo since work here is extremely hard to come by. His shoulder muscles bulge from continual butchering of goats and his skin is as dry as the desert of Timbuktu (he tells me that the average temperature of Timbuktu in Mali is 40 degrees!).

Mamma Ania’s feet creep over the end of the bed. She babbles on to me in Lugbara as I massage her knotted back and legs. Between her babbling Lugbara she continually thanks me saying, ¨Ahh...Merci, Merci, Merci beaucoup!¨ She makes me laugh; her silk Holy Spirit scrave on her head, her gaping teeth and strong hand shake make me smile.

Then we have the chilren: victims of meningitis, paralysis, malinjection, broken bones, muscle spasms, and malnutrition. These children should be out playing, running through the long savanna grass, climbing trees, kicking soccer balls, but they are trapped in their weak bodies, only their eyes have the sign of youthful vigour.
Little Meme, Etsoni and Bolinga come with sore legs, hardly able to walk let alone run. They are all around 7 years old. I massage their tense and stiff little legs and teach them how to walk properly putting their heel down first. I think back to when I was 7 years old: running free, climbing trees and going to bed without pain.
Freddy-Alpha is also 7 years old but his body is the size of a 4 year old. He suffered not only from meningitis, but also malnutrition. He is not able to fully extend his legs and waddles like a duck in his oversized jeans. His hair still has a tint of red which is one of the symptoms of malnutrition. I try to get him to lift his arms up overhead but he can only reach halfway. I think to myself, ¨How can these kids get strong if they don’t eat right.¨ I can massage his legs, do some exercises for his arms and legs to become strong, but if he doesn’t eat right he can’t gain any muscles. In the end it comes down to money. People here can’t afford to buy milk and meat is only eaten on special occasions.
Then there is Caleb a 5 year old who suffered meningitis that left him basically like a vegetable: all he can do is move his eyes. The mom looks at me with desperate eyes as I assess her child. I try to tell her that I can help her child but I know that with a disease like meningitis where the brain and spinal cord have been damaged there is not much hope for recovery. It’s not only the mom who stares up at me but soon enough there are 4 or 5 other mothers gathered around the bed hoping that I can save this little boy. My emotions at that moment were filled with sadness because I knew that this boy’s body would never be able to walk. Who knows though, these mammas have faith that can move mountains so I should not doubt the power of God to heal the sick. I try to straighten out his arms that constantly are in a bent position. I splint the arms with some bandages to keep them straight. I then try to tell the mom in broken Lingala and French to take off the bandages in an hour or 2. The next day I visit the boy the bandage is still on and she tells me how he didn’t sleep at all and now his hands are all swollen. Here is a good example of miscommunication. I have learnt my lesson and will now always clarify with the nurse in French to make sure the mom understands. I don’t want to start inflicting pain upon poor innocent children here in Africa, hahah. Yes, language is really difficult here, especially medical terms in French!
My favourite child is Gyllian. He is 7 years old and is paralysized on one side from meningitis. His left foot is hyperextended so much that he walks on the ball of his foot. His left arm is contracted tightly and the hand hangs lifeless. You would think that a poor little kid like this would have no joy in him but this special boy has one of the most captivating smiles. His mouth is partly paralyzed so when he smiles it’s like a grin almost like he knows some sort of joke that you don’t. He can’t talk but he is a very intelligent little boy. He puts out his good hand and shakes it with all his strength and his slanted amusing grin creeps up half of his face. I can’t resist but to smile. He then quickly scampers off to play with his friends, limping and swaying back and forth with his left arm clinched close to his body.

The most amusing patients I have had so far have been those seeking advice on how to lose weight. Yes it’s true! There are not only malnourished starving people in Africa but also Big Mammas haha. The best comment I got was from one woman of 26 years old who said she heard that I do massage and she wondered if I could massage her stomach to help her lose weight. At first I thought I misunderstood her French so I asked her a few more times, but no it was true she really 100% believed that if I massaged her fat it would disappear! I had to hold back my amusement and told her that if it was that easy to lose weight there would be no overweight people in the world. Another man the next day asked me if drinking alcohol helped to lose weight. Again I said that if that was true our world would be a terrible place full of skinny drunkards running around (I didn’t exactly say that in French but somewhere along those lines...and plus my French limits me to what I would really like to say).

There have been some really disheartening encounters such as a little boy, only 5 years old who broke his hip bone and left it for 10 months. The mom came seeking me for massage for her son. Right away I knew there was something wrong with the bone and I asked if he had ever taken an Xray of which she replied no. She came back with the results that his hip bone was fractured and that he would have to go see an orthopeadic surgeon in Kampala. I am 100% sure she will not be able to afford this operation and the travel expenses since I paid for the Xray which she wasn’t able to afford. My heart went out to this poor child who if was in Canada would have been looked after properly and not have complications with how his broken bone had healed. It is common here to encounter people from the villages in the brush who use their own herbal medicines and medicine men. For example instead of antibiotics they will put some sort of leaves they have boiled on their infections, or a broken bone they will shake and push back together thinking that it will be all better. This is the reality of these people since they have no doctor or proper hospital in their area that is close.

Life. It comes with the morning dew, the rising sun, the soaring birds, the torrential rain; life is in the withered hands stretching to the heavens pleading their prayer, the sunbaked faces and gaping smiles of mammas who have toiled the land for decades, the running feet of children through the long grass. Life is a gift. Life is what we make of it.
Life is fragile. It needs to be looked after. It needs to be appreciated. I am learning that here in Africa. I have come to appreciate how lucky I have been in my life. I am grateful for my life, my health, the bright future I have been given.
I think to the people here, to the sick. Just the other day I came to visit one of my patients in the hospital and the man beside him was covered with a bed sheet with a kerosene lantern lit beside him. His wife was sitting hunched over on a bench weeping. Every time that I have come to visit my patient I always look over to his neighbour and flash a quick smile. One could see in his hollow eyes and wasted away body that he was on the last stretch of his life. As I entered the room and took in the covered body and the light shining as if to say that his soul still was still shining, I couldn’t handle the situation. I left the room and took a breather. An hour later I went to visit another mamma in the hospital but there was a crowd of mammas surrounding the bed beside her where load moaning and weeping were taking place. Another person close to death. I left the room immediately and took another deep breath of somewhat fresh air.
Here I am, a North American girl who has been surrounded by many joyful things: the material distractions that I can hide my sufferings with like a bandaid, opportunities to expand my knowledge and do the things that I enjoy to do, liberty, freedom, and adventure at mydoorstep. The suffering that has been thrown at my face is like a brick wall; it is a difficult thing to get over and to see the light on the other side. I am not accustomed to experiencing the bitterness of life. I have felt alone before, I have felt failure in my life and I have felt despair but never before have I felt these in the raw context of Africa. I am surrounded by words and utterances that I cannot understand, I am stared at everywhere I go, I am in a culture that is the complete opposite of mine, my freedom to explore and adventure on my own is impossible, the village is dirty with no sense of dignity or pride in its craftsmanship and the way things are looked after, the same food with the same taste each day, and the inability to express myself completely. On top of these feelings I am engulfed in the poverty, suffering, hardships of these people which are neverending. Each day I hear mourning echoeing through the green savanna that reached my ears as I start my day. Each day I hear a heart wreching story or see something that I really wish I didn’t have to. At home I have the choice to escape from these. I can find many distractions where my mind can be free. But I am only closing myself off from reality. Reality needs to be seen. Right now I do not want to face the reality here but I don’t think the people here want to face reality either! I don’t think the people here want to wake up in the morning and walk many kilometres to get water, to start the day in the same dirty clothes that had on the day before and sit in the dirty market selling tomatoes to come home at night to nothing but their hut with a tiny fire where the family of 5 kids will sleep together on one bed and then hear that someone they know has died.
I try to be courageous but I am weak. I read a writing by John Merton which reads:
¨The man who does not permit his soul to be beaten down and upset by dryness and helplessness, but who lets God lead him peacefully through the wilderness, and desires no other support or guidance than that of pure faith and trust in God alone, will be brought to the Promised Land.¨
This is my goal. I want to be able to have faith like this. Faith that is able to withstand the dryness and helplessness of situations such as the ones I am experiencing now.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Descriptions of Africa

Discriptions of Africa

The silhouettes of women carrying large casseroles on their heads are cast by the large yellow full moon rising strongly above the towering eucalyptus trees. The moon floods the savanna with lifes as children scurry home along goat paths, men pedal laboriously around tree roots, puddles and potholes while balancing their heavy loads and mammas come out of the darkneess pulling their goats on ropes.

Children with swollen feet and bellies with eyes full of pain and suffering make my heart break. Tears roll down the faces of children with blistering burnt legs as each step tears at their fragile skin. Young kids that should be playing football in the fields are instead trapped in 7 year old weak bodies deprived of the feeling of the grass between their toes and the wind upon their face.Why must these children suffer so? Where is the joy in their faces? Why must they be deprived of the joy that comes from childhood where you can run freely and happily as a bird and not have to go to bed with hunger pains? These are questions I ask myself. I also ask myself how can one return to the land where the sun rises and sets to the rhythm of progess and power? I do not know suffering. I was born in a country that offered me safety, health care and education. I was born into a family that had money to send me to school and to give me opportunities. How was I different from a child growing up in Africa with no access to health care or proper schooling, who was confined to stay at home and look after one’s brothers and sisters? I have never been angry with God until this moment; the moment I saw the spirit of a 15 year old girl trapped in her body because her teacher made her carry a tree as a punishment for being late resulting in paralysis. She must lie there in her bed, her child-like spirit dying within her because her ¨teacher¨ inflicted pain upon her for being late for school. How my heart cries out for her. I cannot help but feel anger towards God for letting something like this happen. I know that in suffering we can find strength and by suffering we can unite ourselves with the suffering of Christ, but when it comes to children I cannot accept this easily. A heaviness weighs upon me as I take in the dark circumstances of the people here. How can I turn my back to their suffering?
Life throbs on for these people in the midst of their suffering. What sustains their pulse? What brings the vibrant colours to the earth and the sky here? How do they find the courage to persevere?

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Since the school session has now finished I have more time on my hands and for me I don't do well when I have lots of free time because I am actually more unproductive. So I decided to work in the hospital in the town of Ariwara which is 50km north of Aru. It runs parallel with the Ugandan border and is 65km southwest of the Sudan border. I left behind my community in Aru which was a big sacrifice for me since I have such a great group of people I live with. I am here in Ariwara living with the Sisters and will be working at the hospital doing ¨physiotherapy¨, yes I am a real Physio here in Africa, haha.
The hospital is respectable hospital for African standards. There is a maternity ward, surgical ward, internal medicine and pediatrics. Here it only took 1 day to prepare a room for me which is double the size of my room in Aru. The nurses here are very helpful and kind and I believe this is going to be a great experience for me. I will be here all of July and August. In August 8 volunteers from Italy will come to do a short term mission project here involving building, painting etc. So I am at present trying to learn more and more Lingala each day so I can communicate better with the sick (many of them come from outside villages where they only speak Lingala or other languages), as well as learning some Italian. Lots of learning here in Ariwara and lots of challenges! There are many sad sights I have seen for example one mamma who was bitten by a dog in one of the villages which wasn't vaccinated for Rabies. Here at the hospital they don't have serum to treat Rabies so she will basically die. She is already showing signs of rage. Her eyes were the most frightening eyes, almost like they could see right through you. She was just sitting on her bed when I saw her and I was afraid that she might just jump out of her bed and attack me. It is sad to see people suffering when you know that back at home there are treatments for these diseases and here it is not possible.

Here are a few descriptions of my first patients here
The smell of fish, peroxide and fresh wounds fills the room. As I approach the bedside of my patient who is lying on his stomach my foot touches the roots of a stack of sweet potatoes underneath the bed. My eyes then meet face to face with the the fish I have been smelling which are wedged between some plastic bottles in a basin by the bed. I then realize that my patient is also sleeping with his baby next to him who is breathing heavily curled up in a little ball. My patient suffered extreme external wounds in an accident with his bicycle. Road accidents involving bikes, motorcycles and trucks is very common here. He cannot rest on his back due to the wounds and his spine suffered a slight fracture.
Another one of my patients is very difficult for me. Imagine first of all this young man speaks Lingala and a little bit of French. Second he suffered a motorcycle accident and damaged the part of the brain in charge of language resulting in aphasia. Therefore he can barely speak and explain anything even in Lingala. It is quite a challenge working with him. He is a hemiplegic so he can only move his left side of the body and also suffers external wounds.

My first experience in Ariwara
The church is packed and people are left to sit outside on logs lined up around the church. The bamboo sticks making up the roof sag downwards with streams of sunshine flowing in. A bright array of colours fills the church but not one white person. The ¨dancing girls and boys¨ are the cutest I’ve seen but I do have to admit they looked a little retarded bouncing up and down and swinging their heads around during the mass. The ushers here don’t wear neon traffic uniforms with Boboto (Peace) written on them but instead wear khaki uniforms with boyties and green hats that could have been worn by WWI veterans. During the consecration they all lined up with one man in the middle carrying a white flag and they saluted Jesus with their 3 fingers forward representing the Trinity. Then during the Our Father, which took about 5 minutes to sing, they did what I would call a ¨Brownie¨ salut. This was just an ordinary Sunday mass and it took 2 hours. The people here could sing all day and all night. It is amazing! The music here is so joyful and everyone sings with so much passion with their arms in the air, swaying and dancing. I am really going to miss this when I go home. At the end of the mass when the priest usually says announcements, one of the Sisters tells me that the priest is introducing me right now and that I need to go up onto the stage. I step up onto the altar and the priest asks me to say a few words to the people. I look out at a vast of black faces, probably 400 or so. I say ¨Mbote¨ which is how you greet people in Lingala, and everyone just went crazy cheering and clapping their hands. I wanted to say more things in Lingala but I was a little nervous and unprepared. After the Sisters said the people LOVED how you spoke their language and that their respect for me has increased dramatically. After this experience I really felt that God wants me here. The people here show so much love and care for their neighbours.
The next day I went with two of the Sisters to visit a woman who is dying of colon cancer. We walked through the village trying to find their house, which is really difficult here since none of the houses have numbers and streets here don’t have names. When we finally found her house we entered into the little round hut which was pitch black. The lady was lying on her bed in the darkness with her family all around her. It was rather frightening for me because it seemed as though she was already dead lying there in the darkness no saying a word. The mother said she hadn’t eaten anything for 4 days and had not spoken in days also. When the mother said the Sisters were there she finally starting talking which made the mother very happy. All I heard her say was, ¨I am just living right now.¨ Then when we left the mother escorted us all the way home which was about a 15 minute walk and talked with us with so much joyfulness in her voice that you would have idea her daughter was on her death bed. The people here never cease to amaze me with their strength and courage. Admist their suffering they can find joy. Their hearts are always open and free. They have no care for time, disturbances don’t bother them, setbacks, death, war, suffering and hunger does not extinguish the fire within them.