Africa had been a life long dream of mineAfrica had been a life long dream of mine, but school, children, and job commitments always seemed to take center stage in my life until at age 60, I was laid off from my job. Suddenly, I had time on my hands and a nice 6 month severance package. The first thing I thought of was...Africa! Having done some pro bono work for Watoto wa Dunia a year or so earlier, I knew that they were planning a second Volunteer Camp and I was determined to go. Dealing with shots and passports and mosquito nets and first aid supplies just made it all the more exciting.
When I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya the over head speaker was playing Willie Nelson's Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain. I knew I was in exactly the right place! Customs was a simple affair once you said you were there "volunteering". After a day in Nairobi to catch up on sleep and jet lag we were finally on our way to Kisayani. A four hour overland trip by Matatu. A matatu is any moving vehicle that transports people and their stuff...from luggage to produce to goats. And we had all three! One thing to remember about matatus is that they are never full...there is always room for more, Before we arrived at our destination, our 9 passenger van held 17 adults, 2 babies on laps, 2 goats and a couple of crates of chickens up on top!
Arriving in Kisayani, we engaged a bicycle matatu to carry our luggage the mile or so to our Empowerment Village where I would be living for the next three weeks. As we hiked in, I was engaged by the sight of 7-8 year old boys herding groups of goats and cattle through the streets and produce sellers calling out to me and asking if I was English. Curious children skipped along beside us as we made quite a scene. We rounded the final turn in the road to the Empowerment Village and suddenly we heard the women uluating and waving and dancing towards us. They had been waiting for hours to welcome us. Over the course of the next several hours we were regaled with speeches, dancing and singing and joyous explosions of laughter.
For the next few weeks we would be living and working and cooking together. The women would arrive each day abut 9:00 after having walked as much as ten miles to get there. In the mornings we joined them to work on our major project of constructing an orphanage to eventually house 40 children who have been orphaned by AIDS or other debilitating diseases. After sharing a communal lunch of greens or ugali or beans, there would be a business meeting to discuss the projects that the Mama's were engaged in: poultry farming, vegetable growing, a fruit orchard and running the camp. The whole purpose is to empower themselves to build a women's community that is both self-supporting and supporting of the 40 children they have committed to working with. Because we participated in these meetings, we needed to have every conversation translated into Swahili and then into a tribal dialect and finally into English. Those meetings could take upwards of two hours just making sure everybody got heard. Then the rest of the day was open to us to decide how we wanted to focus our personal volunteer efforts. I chose to gather medical histories on each of the women, so that we could identify anyone in immediate need of medical attention. I set up my "office" under a large banyan tree and with the help of Ann, who translated for me, I began to meet with each woman and take as detailed a history as possible given the circumstances.
The stories were riveting. A husband mauled by a tiger, a woman with 12 children and only one surviving and a woman with stomach pain so intense that she could see whatever was inside her ripple across her stomach in waves. The stories went on and on until one day Mama Dora came to me and asked if I would go to the house of a woman who was too weak to travel. Of course I agreed. It was mid-afternoon and hot but we set off on a goat trail into the bush. The walk which at first was exciting soon began to feel endless after the first 4-5 miles. About three hours of solid walking finally brought us to a mud hut where Mama Patrice lay on a grass mat. Gratefully, I sat beside her and began to ask her how she was feeling and why she could no longer walk. I asked if she had hurt her leg and she said no. I asked if she could show me where it hurt and she slowed and painfully stood up and modestly shifted her panga, so that I could see. There was a very large and deep boil between her buttocks that had become terribly infected. No wonder she couldn't walk! I could see the suffering on her face as she told Mama Dora that she had not been able to walk for at least a couple of months and that she had no water to keep herself clean.
She had no money for medicine and obviously could not walk to the village to see the doctor, so she had been lying like this for days. We learned that her daughter was away looking for work and had been gone several days. As we talked some more about her situation, I learned that she was also experiencing a recurrence of malaria night sweats and was severely dehydrated. That's when my anger started to burn...a slow, simmering rage at the horrible circumstances Mama Patrice found herself in, and I knew that I was so ill prepared to help her. I had only a few band aids, some Tylenol, a package of peanut butter crackers and a half empty bottle of water. That was it. I knew that it was so inadequate to what Mama really needed but I told her that I would return tomorrow with medicine and water. As we prepared to leave, my anger just swept over me and I said to Mama Dora, "This is just unbelievable that God could allow this woman to remain in this pain and misery for days without help or hope. Mama Dora just looked quietly at me and said, "Mama Judi, God is good and God will provide". Well, that just really set me off! God was obviously not good for this woman and he had done nothing to provide for her. The more I ranted, the angrier I got.
As we took to the trail, I continued to worry it in my mind until I thought I would explode with the injustice of what I had seen. By this time dusk had fallen and the day was fading but I said to Mama Dora." I cannot let this woman go another night in that kind of pain, I must get her some medicine tonight. Will you take me back to her house tonight if I can get some supplies?" And Mama Dora agreed that she would do that. As night was falling we made our way to the pharmacy in Kisayani. Luckily in Kenya, you don't have to have a doctor's prescription in order to get medicine, so I talked to the pharmacist and told her I had a woman that was severely dehydrated, suffering from malaria and an infected boil and I needed whatever antibiotics she had. The pharmacist just began pulling things off the shelf...anti-malaria pills, antibiotics, pain tablets, antiseptic, bandages.....I bought some more bottles of water and we set off into the darkness.
The return trip seemed shorter somehow. It's the way I always feel when I've got a clear sense of purpose. Mama Patrice was lying on the same mat when we returned but she cried out greetings to us as I showed her what we had brought. Mama Dora built a fire for us to see by and we went to work....cleaning and dressing and dosing the wound. Mama Dora gave her the pills and instructions for how to take them while I cleaned out the wound with antiseptic. After about an hour of work, we decided we had done all that we could for that night but promised to return tomorrow with food and more water. As we started the trek back, I told Mama Dora how much better I felt leaving Mama Patrice this time and how glad I was that we had come back. Mama Dora just turned to me and smiled and said" I told you Mama Judi that God is good and God will provide". And indeed he had. I just didn't know it would be through me.