Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Slouched up on a bench in Heal Africa this morning, I wound up a bit too far in my own head trying to dissect how I’ve gotten to be a person who curls herself on a bench in the middle of a hospital waiting room in sub-Saharan Africa.

This morning: A colleague woke up with a temperature of 102° and in this it-is-better-to-be-safe-than-sorry land we decided she should go get the usual-suspects round of tests (malaria, typhoid, and little worms in your stomach). We grabbed a car, we bounced down volcano roads to the hospital, and she was ushered off by white-coats, me left alone to wait.

A small crowd of mamas were squeezed on one bench clutching their children. My arms ached, as they do, to cuddle a baby myself, but I was too shy, so I smiled, gave a half hearted wave, and sat apart from them. Unfortunately/fortunately, it soon became apparent that the reason my chosen bench was completely empty is that there was construction going on above me and plaster crashing liberally down all around my head and so with plenty of clucking tongues and shared Oh heavens, muzungos are hopeless glances, the mamas forced their hips to shrink and found room for me amidst them. And then to complete my happiness, a baby was passed to me, a lovely roly-poly boy named Fidel with no fear of White Strangers, a cleft lip slicing up through his nose, and a contagious cackle when you counted his perfect tiny toes. One little piggy went to market… one came home.

I think it was Fidel’s cleft lip, being able to see inside his beautiful head every time he threw it back with crazy giggles, that led me to wander quite a ways inside my own. First I thought about Hannah, a little girl who also had a cleft lip who I held for an eight hour bus ride through southern Ethiopia, and who peed on me, but that’s a compliment, her mother assured me. Then I thought about the cargo train my friend and I caught from Dire Dawa to the Djibouti border and the soldiers who fired round after round of ammunition out of the wooden carriage into the dark of the desert night, scaring us. I thought about making up nonsense songs with Kewulling, my guard in Basse Santa Su, my best friend in the country, while we waited for attaya to brew. I thought about the sterile fearful feeling of Asmara. I thought about the warm dusty open arms of Kitgum. And stumbling upon a dance in the middle of town. And joining in. I thought about how much I used to think I knew and how little I really knew, and how little I know that I know now. I thought about the reasons I left DC in the first place.

When I handed Fidel back to his mama, she grabbed my arm. She struggled a bit forming her mouth around the words, in English, “Thank you”. She grinned with pride at her use of a foreign tongue.

I blinked in surprise and said “Thank you,” back since clearly it was I who should be grateful to her for her hospitality sharing the bench and her child. I tried “Asante” and grinned with pride myself at my use of Swahili.

Our eyes met in a moment of real communion. Then everything all shifted back to that other reality, the one with me the interloper in her land, she the mama of a child she can’t protect. And I left.

And when I dropped off my colleague at our house before heading to the office, JB (our chef) and Esperance (one of our housekeepers) surrounded me in the kitchen.

"That was a charitable thing you did, going with her to the hospital," said JB.

"That is how we act here, in our culture, helping each other like that," said Esperance.

"We have a saying here," said JB. He held up his hand, fingers splayed. "When this finger is injured," he folded down one finger, "the rest suffer," he wiggled his others.

What was it? It was Mom and Dad, telling me that I am GOOD.

But I think about myself too much.

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