Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Praying for Friday

After introductions between our team and the home based care volunteers, James asked if we would sing a song. We had been told that we would be asked this by the team that came in June, a team I might add that included a number of talented singers that have travelled and sung in front of numerous audiences. Not so our team. After an abnormally long minute of exchanging glances and raised eyebrows towards one another, Melissa bravely started out in a song. Thankfully, it was one that most of us knew and we sang it a little bit sheepishly. Then James asked one of the volunteers to lead them in a song. And the second that her mouth opened, I was both embarrassed and relieved that we had gone first. What followed was some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard…made more beautiful by the unabashed volume at which these volunteers sung together and clapped and danced. I looked around at our team and we were all in varying states of shock, surprise and utter amazement. It was unbelievable what we were standing in the midst of. Song after song, they offered up in succession with their voices raised and their hands clapping and every part of their body moving to the music. The windows of the school filled with even more children clambering for a spot and a few of the bolder children filed in along the wall near the doorway. Apparently there is a gene that provides the ability to dance, sing and smile all at the same time and Zambians have been blessed with it. It was the first of many experiences in which there was nothing else to do but marvel at the gracefulness and beauty of these beautiful people dancing. Even Nkosi, 84, nearly blind, would move in and out of the circle so lightly on his feet that you would think he was a small boy. His smile wide and his hands clapping, this man could dance….and dance he did. He danced with such joy and optimism that you would think he had an easy life with everything he ever desired. He danced the lighthearted dance of someone unencumbered by their own humanity.Each of the volunteers danced and sang and invited us to join in and it was a perfect beginning to what was going to be an amazing couple of weeks together. Friendships began in that circle and our lives entwined in a way that still binds my heart to theirs from across the globe.
Gitness, Loveness and Blessings head out into the paths of Mulenga to do home care visits.After dancing and singing, we split into groups to go out and do some home care visits to patients who were sick. Kristal and I went with Crispin, Olantah and Sukai. I was happy to be with Kristal, knowing she had more experience than I in this setting and I was willing to go along and observe. Crispin wound his way through the alleys and pathways of the village and soon I realized that if I was to be separated from the group, I had no hope of retracing my steps. We came into a small yard with a very small clay brick home with a tin roof. Cutting through the hedge and ducking under the laundry line, we came around the front of the home to find a number of young boys digging clay and making bricks. There were also a few small children in the yard who were surprised to see Kristal and I in their midst. Crispin greeted a young woman with a small baby hanging onto her leg and an older woman washing out the morning cups. The small children came over to us one by one and shyly offered their hands to shake and greeted us with “mulishani” or “How are you”. Crispin asked the older woman where her son was and she walked up the road a short way to fetch him. The younger woman, who was the daughter in law of the older woman, led us around the side of the house to the shade where she invited us to sit on the cement ledge surrounding the home. We sat down and waited for her husband, Daniel, to make his way to us. He walked towards us down the hill and it was obvious he was very sick and in a weakened state. He walked like a man three times his age. He pulled up the only chair in the yard and sat facing us. Crispin introduced Kristal and I to the family and told them that we were there to support and encourage them as well. The young woman sat next to me with her smallest boy who was about a year old on the other side of her. While Crispin talked with Sukai and Daniel about how he was feeling, this little one and I engaged in a game of peek-a-boo behind his mother’s back. He would peer shyly around his back and watch me and when I would look at him, he would smile and bury his face in her side. He was dirty and small with the large belly that bore witness to the fact that he was malnourished and he was beautiful. Our game was interrupted by a coughing fit that caused his mother to draw him onto her lap and hit him on the back. I held out my hand to him once he was done coughing and he reached for it and held it for a moment before pulling his hand back and examining it to see if my color rubbed off on him. His mother and I both laughed and it was great to share that connection with someone despite the language barrier. In talking with the family, I discovered that the father had tuberculosis and was on treatments. They were living with his mother as he wasn’t able to work steadily and so they were struggling to feed their six children. In fact, three of the children were sent across the village to live with his sister. The youngest three were living with the parents and were also being tested for tuberculosis. Daniel was a very hard worker and was used to providing for his family. Tuberculosis medication is a long term medication and is very painful and hard on the body. It has to be taken with meals and consistently so that the side effects are minimized and the risks of resistance are held at bay. Daniel was taking his medication consistently but most often on an empty stomach because the family just did not have enough food to eat. This increases the painful side effects of the medication. I realized very quickly that Daniel was a tenacious man, making a decision to fight to get well although it must have been very painful for him. He was still trying to work and provide for his family but the brick work he did was dusty, hard labor – a combination that only complicated his condition. I learned the basics of home based care in that yard – that you cannot fix someone’s situation but you can stand with them in it and encourage them. As I watched Crispin pray for Daniel and just be his friend, I realized that what these volunteers are giving when they go out on these visits is friendship and encouragement. They do not have the means to alleviate any of the financial or sustenance needs but they are there to provide a voice and counsel and friendship and those things in that yard were very valuable. I was only there as an observer, I didn’t feel that there was anything I could contribute at that point but I did feel that having seen what I had seen, I took on some responsibility. I’m still trying to figure out what that entails from a world away.We went to several different homes that day –I met grandmothers and widows who were caring for their grandchildren because their children had passed away. I met young uncles and sisters who were shouldering the responsibility of caring for their nephews or younger siblings whose parents were dead or dying. These family structures are obviously important and children who have relatives in the village are often at least given some form of shelter and meals although they may not always be entirely welcome in the home. In many cases, children who are fathered by men other than the head of the household, whether he is a relative or not, are only given the minimum needed to survive – that may only be a roof over their head at night and a meal a day at the feeding point. Shoes or pants that fit may not be deemed a necessity by the head of the household and so often times, the children in these situations are lonely and feel like a burden to their relatives. It’s heartbreaking because so many of these children would flourish before our eyes with just a pat on the back or a smile and a question or two about themselves.We visited an older man in his eighties who was sitting on a stool in his yard under a tree, waiting to die. The man we came to visit told us that he was tired of being misdiagnosed at the hospital and repeatedly put on tuberculosis medication so he was not going to go to the doctor again. He was going to wait under the tree until he passed away. He had not had a bath in over a year because of some effects of his illness so he was content to shrivel up and blow away. Kristal asked him if he was bitter and he said that he was frustrated and tired. He had wanted to live out his days productively and felt that he had been cheated of that opportunity and that no one could help him. He told us that the home based care workers who visited him were the only people keeping him alive. His skin looked like leather and his eyes seemed to have no more tears to shed even though what he spoke of was obviously very distressing to him. He felt that he was a burden to his family and wore his shame and defeat visibly. Kristal took some lotion out of my bag and after asking his permission, began to massage his dry arms and hands. She spoke to him and Sukai translated and it was so beautiful to see her take care of him in this way. We spent time with him and read to him, watching him engage with us and begin to smile and nod as we spoke. I told him that I had great respect for him in his situation and that when I looked at him, I saw a man of great dignity who was worthy of much respect. He held my hand and was so grateful, it moved me to tears. Is this all it takes to relieve such suffering? Such small kindness and encouragement can alleviate the anguish of a man who is sitting under a tree waiting for the release of death? I had gone from being an observer to being a participant in this man’s care and began to understand how God has given us all the skills we need to care for one another.As we left this yard, we began to wind our way back towards the school where we would be meeting the others. There was a small crowd of children following us through these paths for quite a distance, and I caught myself wondering if their parents would approve of the distances they were travelling to follow strangers, but then I quickly realized that most did not have parents or anyone watching them so closely that this would even be a concern. We came to a small clearing where there was a young man, in his early twenties, leaning against his small house. It seemed that we had stumbled upon him by accident but in a few minutes, it was clear that Crispin knew him and had intended to check on him. This man’s name was Friday. He was very quiet and shy, never lifting his eyes and only speaking one word answers to Crispin’s inquiries. He was leaning against his home and so after introductions, Kristal and Olantah leaned against the house on one side of him, Sukai and I on the other side of him. He was obviously very sick and told Crispin quietly of the pain he was experiencing in his legs that made it nearly impossible to stand or walk. He was very anemic and when Sukai checked his eyelids, they were completely white. It was amazing he had the strength to even lean against his house. The crowd of children began to grow around us and Sukai dispersed them with the universal language of mothers – a flick of the hand and a “go!” and they were gone. She called back one young girl and handed her some kwacha (dollars) and gave her instructions and sent her off. Moments later, the girl returned with soap and a small packet of laundry detergent. Sukai thanked her and sent her off, placing the items next to Friday on the ledge of his house. As we talked with Friday, it was clear that he was very much alone and barely able to care for himself. The doorway to his home was covered only with a piece of fabric that blew over our heads in the breeze, revealing a nearly empty room inside save for a few dishes and a chair. During the entire visit, I was aware of how difficult his life was and that it wasn’t going to get easier. Like the older man we had just spent time with, the pain and exhaustion of being sick in a life that takes so much energy just to maintain shelter and provide a meal was taking a mental and emotional toll on this young man. I wake up now at night thinking about him, wishing that I had made a meal for him or swept his home or washed his blanket for him. I went back to my role as observer when we arrived at Friday’s home and I wish I had been more active in serving him. I’m trying to figure out if I wish I had been more active so he would have felt better or if I would feel better now when I remember him. I am certain it is both. Today is Friday. It’s no longer just a day of the week for me. It’s the name of a young man whose eyes I’ve looked into and whose sadness I shared. A man who, in different circumstances, would be starting life, not finishing it…a man who will eventually be part of the generation of young, able bodied men and women who are lost to Zambia and to all of us. Thank God it's Friday.

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