Thursday, May 27, 2010

It would make it easier on us now if we had someone to blame.

In May 2007 while I was living in The Gambia our country director’s daughter died. She was a good half-decade younger than me, a school girl, bright and chubby and cheery by accounts. Our country director was Senegalese and so we loaded into one of our pick-ups on the weekend and traversed South across the border into Casamance to his ancestral village outside of Ziguinchor. It was my first time in contested territory. It was my first time at a funeral from a culture outside my own and the wretched screaming crying singing of the women was a phenomenon I hadn’t experienced before. It was my first time to see a dead body up close. I knelt by the girl’s side in her mud-walled home. Some man unwrapped her face – her head lolled and they propped it up with cloth. B said to me in his imperfect English, “This is my daughter, Khady,” as if she were visiting us in the office and he were making an introduction. Khady’s empty shell was bone thin and in the dim light of the house her skin looked old-paper yellow and so later my friend, gripping my hand, speculated that it was yellow fever that killed her.

I was immunized against yellow fever in 2004. Then I misplaced my yellow card, and in 2006 got immunized again. Double immunity for me. None for Khady.

Here in Congo, I took a Western colleague to the hospital two days ago for the usual round of tests – malaria, typhoid, etc. – because she felt ill. In the waiting room I left her to stand in line all alone, fighting to pay her bill, while I lolled on a bench a ways away. I made sign-language small talk with the other women waiting. I cuddled this happy, happy baby named Fidel who had a unilateral complete cleft palate leading to a dark recess instead of nostrils. I thought about how if I’d been born like he was born, by the time I was his age I’d only have had a scar, not a gaping hole into my brain. My colleague, swaying on her feet, texted me to say how sorry she was that the process was taking so long. I texted back: No prob.

I haven’t been mean to her, my sick colleague. I chased pharmacies across town looking for tests. I brought her a glass for water. I sat on her bed and tried my best to look sympathetic and chastised myself for not feeling more empathy. Last night at 10 pm, after her typhoid test turned positive and she was puking up her pills, I called an Iraqi doctor friend and convinced him to drag himself out of bed and admit her into the MONUC hospital. But – I still haven’t felt the compassion I wish I could feel. I keep thinking: Other people get typhoid. Other people don’t get fluids and drips and tender medicinal care.

Khady was taken to the hospital before she died. But for two weeks prior to that, as she was retching and shitting, she was taken to local healers. By the time she was admitted into the hospital, her young body didn’t stand a change of recovering from the dehydration and trauma it had suffered. My colleague is nowhere near the brink of death. But neither was Khady, for those two weeks. If Khady had been taken to the hospital at the same point in the progression of her sickness that my colleague has reached, Khady might still be alive. Yet here I am, begrudging my colleague her ability to access doctors. It’s absolutely illogical.

The poor woman has typhoid. She is accessing the treatment we all deserve. The inequities of the world are not on her shoulders. I don't know why I have to keep reminding myself of that.


Murph said...


It is always easier to pretend as if you are feeling sympathy and other experiences do not affect a present situation. Thank you for your honesty and sharing.

Rachel said...

Thanks for reading & for the comment, Murph!