Hospitals in the developing world are unforgettable – the overwhelming need, the overpowering smells, and the helplessness that one feels are etched in the memory. But they are also unforgettable because often in the midst of all that seems unholy – there are redemptive, holy moments.
Today’s post takes us to a busy, crowded hospital in Swaziland through a guest poster, Lesley Keyter – known by many as The Travel Lady. There will be more on Lesley at the end – for now read on!
As I walk into the hospital I instinctively stop breathing through my nose.
I can’t describe the smell – a mixture of urine, body odour, stale bandages, dust and floor polish. Probably fairly typical of a small under-financed hospital in a poor African country.
In 1986 at only 18 years old King Mswati III was crowned King of Swaziland. At that time he was the youngest king in the world and one of the last absolute monarchs. With a population of a million people this small landlocked Kingdom, sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique, relied heavily on foreign aid and volunteer organisations.
A corrupt government plus a teenage king with a taste for luxury meant that the country’s most needy were left to fend for themselves.
The hospital corridors are crowded with patients, lying on the floor, sitting in the sun, eating mealies (corn cob). Most of them show signs of horrible wounds with dirty bandages and open sores. Most are laughing and joking – it’s an African thing that even in the middle of the worst situation there is always time for a laugh. The occasional patient lies there silently suffering and in one corner an old woman looks like she is not breathing at all. Her skin is a dusty gray and her wasted legs are covered by a tartan blanket. I have learnt that it is best to keep breathing through my mouth and keep my eyes ahead.
I reach the children’s ward and pass one small ward after another until I get Ward 8. Our small group of children are abandoned but the Swazi Government refuses to believe there is such a thing as an abandoned child. It is contrary to tribal custom. So the children end up here in the hospital, in Ward 8 as long term residents. Our volunteer efforts provide nannies, toys, food and even school fees and school uniforms.
“Aish Medem – I am glad you are here” – Julia greets me as I come in. “I need help with Mandla – he won’t eat his phutu(porridge) and I am busy with the baby”.
Mandla is a hefty 4-year-old with Down Syndrome. He’s quite strong and a handful at times. I get to work, distracting him with my car keys while I shovel the porridge into him while I have the chance. Julia is working with the new baby – just 3 months old already diagnosed with TB and (we are sure but nobody says the word) probably dying from AIDS.
No sooner am I finished with Mandla – a huge clean up involving his face, hands, chair, floor and toys – than Precious needs a diaper change. She is 3 years old and this is the only home she has known. She is still not talking properly. Julia is walking around with the baby (as yet unnamed) with a deep frown making the characteristic clicking noises of disapproval with her tongue.
“What is it Julia?” I ask from the depths of the diaper bucket.
“Hey Medem, I do not know what to do about thees baby. She is very very sick but the doctor he says he is too busy and this one is going to die anyway so he cannot spare the time”. Julia’s eyes fill with tears and I can see that the doctor is right. The baby is so thin – overwhelmed by the diaper. Her breathing is shallow.
“Well maybe we can speak to the Red Cross or Save the Children,” I suggest. Surely there must be someone who can get some help to this baby – give her a fighting chance.
“Well Medem – it is in God’s hands”
Indeed, I think to myself. I’ll see who I can phone when I get home.
I feel a sharp tug at my skirt and look down distractedly. There is Mandla – his characteristic Down Syndrome eyes gleaming with delight. In his hand he has my lipstick and has managed to paint it all over his face. He looks up at me with a big smile – a glimmer of hope in the Children’s Ward.
About Lesley –
As a Navy brat Lesley is no stranger to travel. She was born in England and in her teens emigrated to South Africa. From there it was just a short hop to the tiny African Kingdom of Swaziland where she lived for 17 years. She now calls Calgary Canada her home and has turned her love of travel to a thriving business known as The Travel Lady.