Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Caught up and caught off guard

Lately, I've been caught up -- namely in a million administrative tasks. They are the duties that help make this place run smoothly, and they come in floods.

Then, yesterday, I was caught off guard -- once by a moment of happiness, once by a moment of sadness.

In the midst of my administrative work, both moments were like sudden flashes of light in a dark room: shocking enough to make me close my eyes for a second in adjustment, and bright enough to give me a clear dose of reality apart from my office bubble.

The first occurred when I slipped into the playroom to take another look at the babies. We have a total of eight now.

We have Ntseliseng and Selloane, who I mentioned last week, as well as Nthati, who has been here the longest and who seems to be doing really well. We have Mamello, who is three months, Karabo, who is wild at one year, and the twins Bohlokoa and Bohloeki, who are staying strong and doing better.

We also recently took in Mpho, a tiny little boy who was born on June 6 at less than 4 pounds and referred immediately to TTL. He was born a twin, but his sibling didn't make it.

My moment of happiness came with Ntseliseng.

I've been trying to get her to use her legs more and more, pulling her onto them and holding her hands as I lead her forward. In the past, she has burst into tears or sort of welled up in resistance each time I attempted this exercise. Her legs are tiny, and it's tiring for her to use them.

But yesterday, the reverse happened. I pulled her onto her legs, and amazingly, she laughed. I walked her forward, and she giggled with each step. I verbally encouraged her more and more, and she looked back at me and then around the room, as if to say, "Hey, everybody, look at me!" She kept laughing with each smile from the bo'me.

For me, it signified a possible turning point in her development. If she associates making an effort to use her legs with accomplishment and encouragement, maybe she'll start making that effort more often.

After a few feet, I stopped backing away from her, and let her fall into my chest. She pulled herself up to a standing position, holding onto my shoulders. She was out of breathe a bit, but smiling. I smiled back.

It wasn't long after when my moment of sadness came.

I was sitting in TTL's front office when one of our outreach workers, Kokonyana, came in with a mother and baby. The mother pulled up the shirt of the infant, who was crying, and I could see what appeared to be a bulge in the baby's side disappear and then reappear on her other side. It seemed almost as if it were pulsating back and forth.

Kokonyana gave me the baby's bukana, and I saw the words "bilateral hernia" scrawled in black pen.

I'd never heard of such a thing, but guessed what it meant.

I also saw that the Mokhotlong hospital had referred the baby to the hospital in Maseru. Another one of our outreach workers told me the mother is mentally ill, a complicating factor in the entire situation. I looked at the nonchalant way the mother held the baby, and heard the wail of the baby, and cringed.

We supplied the mother with a fresh can of formula, a bottle brush and soap, and then took her back to the Mokhotlong Hospital to see what we could do to help facilitate her trip to Maseru. We were able to get her admitted to the C Ward, where she will receive assistance and transportation to Maseru. It's all we could do at this point, but it didn't diminish my concern.

Both moments, like I said, were like sudden flashes of light. I think I am still blinking from both...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Striking Transformations

I opened the door to the play room today and there they were: Selloane and Ntseliseng, looking back at me and smiling from ear to ear.

"Hi!" I said, waving.

They both giggled. Ntseliseng waved. Selloane bolted in my direction, and I scooped her up and spun quickly in a circle. She grinned, her dark eyes seeming to sparkle, and I laughed out loud in amazement.

In the last few days, both girls seem to have hit a turning point in their recoveries, and suddenly seem like brand new, energized versions of themselves.

The transformations are absolutely striking.

Selloane, who will be three in October, was so shy for so long. She used to sit quietly and stare. When she was sick, she frowned and looked miserable. She didn't want to be held or played with or, as far as I could tell, acknowledged.

But ever since her fever broke, she's been opening up and gaining weight, going from 7.2 kg on June 12 to 8.2 kg today. Her face has filled out, and while it used to be a big event if she showed even the slightest hint of a smile, she now gives big, cheesy smiles all the time. She literally looks like a different kid. She's loud, happy and expressive, wandering around the playroom with all the energy a girl her age should have.

Ntseliseng, who will be two in September, is smiling and making lots of noise now as well. She still isn't walking, her legs still tiny and extremely underdeveloped, but she is crawling and scooting on her butt more and more. She happily ate her entire lunch of carrots, chicken and rice today, is breathing regularly and looks better and less gaunt every day.

All this after being on death's doorstep so recently, and being on a roller coaster of health fluctuations for the last month. Ntseliseng got here tiny and ill, recovered and started to do better, and then hit the wall of illnesses that swept through the safe-home last month and spiraled quickly downhill. I wasn't sure she was going to make it. There were moments when I thought she would stop breathing at any second.

But now she seems to be back on track. She's gone from 5.6 kg on June 6 to 6.7 kg on June 12 to 7.1 kg today. She's getting less and less fussy with me when I try to pull her onto her feet and exercise her legs.

After the happy greeting I got walking into the playroom earlier today, I played with Ntseliseng and Selloane for about a half hour just before lunch. They both like playing a game where they stick their tiny hands toward my face and I pretend like I might bite. They shriek in laughter and yank their hands away. Ntseliseng also likes playing a game where she puts her face less than an inch from mine, then looks directly into my eyes until she or I break and roll away in laughter.

At one point I was on my back, and Selloane sat on my chest smiling as she watched Ntseliseng pull herself up onto my chest as well. They both seemed happy and content and comfortable, laughing down at me -- such a far cry from a few weeks ago.

I caught myself marveling at their improvement, and again laughed out loud.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

One second, a thousand years...

I can't believe I've been here almost five months.

Then again, sometimes I feel like I've been here forever, and so has everyone I meet here, like we're all locked in some twilight-zone representation of the world, one that only changes at a glacial pace and will continue on doing so forever through its peaks of sadness and cheer.

Time here is at once ephemeral and permanent. It is strange from the smallest sense of the word to the largest sense of the word -- from one second to a thousand years.

One second here can last forever, and lock into your consciousness for good -- packed so densely with emotion that you'll never forget it.

When a baby is struggling to breathe and you are sitting with her in a hospital with no resources, and a cold, dark winter night is all around you and seems like it is closing in fast to take hold of both you and the little one in your arms, seconds seem to last an eternity. They tick away in your head and you count them slowly, happy for each one and scared for the next. Each new second is your connection to the future, but might also be that sad thing they call a "Time of Death" for the helpless little baby in your arms. You hold on tighter.

One second.

Sometimes, for just one second, when I'm just waking up or am about to fall asleep, I will forget where I am. And then there is the next second, when I remember, and my mind and my body again go through the physical shock and awe and confusion and wonder and shivering adjustment of realizing that I am in Mokhotlong, at the edge of the world, or the peak of the world, and that I am staying here.

Just one second is time enough here for vast changes to occur. Things happen in a flash and you're left to wonder why and how.

On the other end of the spectrum, a thousand years can seem trivial here. It's easy to get the feeling that the impact of a thousand years wouldn't be that great here, wouldn't change all that much, because the last thousand years haven't changed much here either. In certain villages, I feel like I could fall asleep, wake up a thousand years ago or a thousand years from now, and be absolutely none the wiser.

When I set out on outreach, and hike to a rural village and find nothing but a few stone rondavals with thatched roofing on the edge of a cliff, and all around me there is the enormous blueness of the panorama sky so big I wonder if its grounded and I'm the one floating above, I think of 2,000 years ago and wonder if people were living the same way back then. And then I think, yes, they were, and the feeling is strange. Thousands of years seem to flap away in the wind and I think, for just a split second, that I could be in Biblical times. The cell phone feels strange in my pocket, like a useless rock. No reception anyway. I'd be better off yelling from mountain to mountain like the locals, whose voices seem to carry so well and whose hearing seems mystical and far beyond my own.

Thousands of years vanish here to nothing.

I shudder at the brevity of time here when a baby is taken away, too soon, because some wretched little virus or bacteria steals him away with no apologies.

I try to comprehend the enormity of time, in terms of history and how far back I can see into the past, when I look at the simple villages in the middle of no where.

Time here is something you want to change for people, something you want to make more malleable in their lives. You want to give them the tools to manipulate time, the tools that are so prevalent elsewhere in the world. They shouldn't have to walk for hours to get water, you think. They shouldn't have to walk for half a day to get medical support.

Time: In a way, it's what TTL deals in.

We reverse the horrors of months without enough food in a matter of weeks. We deliver support to families in hours in our outreach cars, covering distances that some of the family members may never travel in their lives.

Time, in a way, is what TTL gives people here. More time to live. More time to care about a child's development and growth instead of worrying about where the next tin of formula is going to come from.

Time is what we all base our lives around. How we operate within it and the tools we have to use it efficiently shape our standards of living.

To be able to help change time for people, to give more of it to young babies, is a powerful thing. It's a feeling I can grasp in one second, and a concept I feel I could mull over for thousands of years.

Time. It's a strange thing here.

Friday, June 18, 2010

3 Princes

On a day-to-day basis, I never know what to expect in Lesotho. Every day is different. Some days are sad, some days are happy, and some days are one-of-a-kind.

Yesterday, for example, was a pretty unique day in that I happened to meet three princes: Prince Seeiso of Lesotho and Prince William and Prince Harry of England.

Sentebale, which Prince Seeiso and Prince Harry co-founded four years ago to help the children of Lesotho, is a big supporter of TTL's, and M'e Nthabeleng and I were invited to a small gathering at Sentebale's offices in Maseru to celebrate the organization's fourth anniversary.

There were about two dozen guests at the small luncheon event, most of them from the various charitable organizations that Sentebale supports.

Prince William and Prince Harry -- in the region in part to enjoy the World Cup -- served as the guests of honor at the event along with Prince Seeiso, who is King Letsie III's younger brother and Lesotho's ambassador in London.

Prince Seeiso is really amiable, and made his way around the room with a warm approachability. When he shook my hand he looked in my eyes, and when he read "Touching Tiny Lives" off my name tag it was with a genuine smile. Naturally, M'e Nthabeleng had him laughing out loud with a few quick quips in Sesotho.

Prince Harry and Prince William are both taller than I had imagined. They were dressed casually, and despite the formality of their positions, seemed in the small crowd like any other laid-back twenty-somethings. They also interacted with each other in the one-raised-eyebrow-means-a-thousand-words sort of way that only brothers can. It was endearing, and made me miss my own three brothers.

Unfortunately, M'e Nthabeleng and I never got to talk to them directly about TTL, but being in their immediate presence with our labeled name tags seemed like networking in its own right.

In his short speech, Prince Seeiso praised Sentebale's staff and partners, saying the organization's work has been getting sharper and more refined with each passing year. TTL's mission to help orphaned and vulnerable children fits perfectly with Sentebale's, and I consider our partnership -- which started in 2009 -- as part of that refinement. We are lucky to have Sentebale's support, which stems directly from the commitments of Prince Seeiso and Prince Harry to the kids of Lesotho.

In a way, monarchs are strange figures for Americans -- and for me -- to grasp. We lack relevant comparisons, partly because many of America's privileged aristocratic heirs -- at least publicly -- are socially-unconscious socialites with little to no responsibility.

Partly in light of that, seeing the three princes take time out of their obviously hectic schedules to meet with a couple dozen NGO workers was a cool experience.

They were there to say they care, that they take their titles seriously and respect the people on the ground, doing the work that they've helped make possible.

Lesotho, Sentebale, TTL and all the other organizations represented at the small gathering count on support from the outside world -- and to see three princes leading the way was an encouraging thing to witness firsthand.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"Feel it. It is here."

"The FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa: Feel it. It is here."

Even though the World Cup isn't technically in Lesotho, Lesotho is geographically inside of South Africa -- and soccer fever is palpable here. The above slogan, which can be heard on the radio constantly, is poignant. You really can feel the tournament's presence.

South African flags have suddenly become ubiquitous on all the cars and trucks around town, and the sound of vuvuzelas -- or giant plastic horns -- can be heard blaring throughout Mokhotlong during all the matches. It's a contagious feeling of excitement.

On Friday night, Claire, Quinn, Emma and I all went over to M'e Nthabeleng's house to watch the tournament's opening game between South Africa and Mexico. Lesotho's team isn't in the tournament, but lots of Basotho -- including M'e Nthabeleng's teenage son Neo -- root for Bafana Bafana, the South African team, so the game was a big one.

On Saturday night, we all went to M'e Nthabeleng's again for the game between England and the U.S.A. At the beginning of the game, M'e Nthabeleng playfully insisted that I sing the U.S. national anthem.

We had big dinners both nights, and got to sample the local cuisine of papa and cabbage a la Chef Nthabeleng. I even pitched in by making a dessert Saturday night , which consisted of local makoenya -- or fried dough balls -- drizzled with melted chocolate and coconut shavings. They were, I'm happy to report, a hit.

The simple experience of watching the games -- both 1-1 ties -- with M'e Nthabeleng's family is one I will never forget. We all crowded around the television in her family room and cheered together for Bafana Bafana. They teased me by rooting for England as I cheered for the U.S. As we talked to each other about near misses on goal and the funny facial expressions of raging coaches, English mixed in and out with Sesotho. A single gas heater sat in the center of the room, but there was plenty of warmth and camaraderie to go around.

Although I'm not going to make it to South Africa for any of the games, watching them in Mokhotlong is something I wouldn't want to trade.

The only sad part of the World Cup being so close is the feeling that, even as the world turns its collective gaze on South Africa, it will forget the tiny country in its peripheral vision. The World Cup is occurring on Lesotho's front porch as we speak, and still I fear Lesotho will miss out on all the tournament's benefits.

I recently heard on the radio that more World Cup tickets were sold in the U.S. than in any other country outside of South Africa.

I hope my countrymen will do more than attend games and buy soccer souvenirs. I hope they'll look around them and see the need that is all too apparent.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A dance, a hug, a good-bye

Today the sun rose bright and warm, and the leftover fog drifted away white and thick and gleaming, and the streets shined wet and fresh, and there was happiness in the air and in the halls of the safe-home.

Today was five-year-old Nteboheng's day to go home, back to her grandmother's care. This morning the bo m'e gave her new clothes and a new bag with Disney princesses on it, and she smiled at her new belongings.

Yesterday, the bo m'e washed the clothes and the hair of Nteboheng's favorite doll -- which she long-ago named Nteboheleng -- so it would be clean for Nteboheng's departure. I'm so happy she gets to take the doll home with her.

For months she has carried it everywhere, wrapped in a little blanket on her back, just like the bo m'e carry the babies.

In her daily mimicry of the bo m'e, Nteboheng would feed her doll with one specific toy she pretended was a bottle, half a plastic egg shell she pretended was a snack container, and a hinged doll house she pretended was a refrigerator. She would talk to the doll just as the bo m'e talk to the babies, with a smart, perfect intonation that always got the bo'me to laugh.

It's been amazing to watch Nteboheng's progression. When she arrived here at the beginning of March, she was emaciated and horribly skinny, lethargic and quiet. Her personality was unknown to us. She was HIV-positive but not on medication. For kids her age, a CD4 count of less than 500 is considered "severe suppression" -- and her CD4 count was 6.

Today she is a happy, outgoing little girl who talks up a storm and who has boundless energy and the undeniable personality of an unapologetic and witty m'e-in-training.

She is the cutest dancer in the world, I'm convinced of it, and danced throughout the morning in the playroom. She has great rhythm, and has a signature two-step that she does with puckered lips that makes everyone smile and the bo m'e whoop in laughter.

This morning, before she hit the road with outreach, the bo m'e turned on music in the play room, and the volunteers Claire, Quinn and Emma, who have gotten close to Nteboheng the last week and a half themselves, held the other babies and took pictures as some of the bo m'e and I joined Nteboheng in dancing.

I had an easy smile on my face and was laughing, dancing to the cheerful music with Nteboheng as the sun shone through the big playroom window. The moment seemed so good and pure and simple.

Later, just before she left, Nteboheng came into my office and gave me a hug. Then I watched her form the window as she walked off to the car with outreach, swinging her Disney princess bag and smiling.

Another TTL success story, one that was especially important to me. After so many losses, it helps to have the scales balancing out again, to once again see a result that's in line with our mission: a child going home happy and healthy.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A fresh start

Today we awoke to the first snow of the year.

There was a white dusting over everything, and the familiar horizon of layered mountains was hidden behind a thick white fog.

I smiled when I opened the door to my rondaval and saw it all. For some reason, I naturally associate the first snow of the year with a new beginning, a fresh start -- and after the past few weeks, the feeling was welcome.

It was as if the snow and the sharp, cool air gave me a chance to take a clean, fresh breathe, and move forward from the sadness.

The feeling remained even as the snow settled into a soft rain, and the dusting disappeared, and the white world turned back to its winter browns and grays.

It's strange how little things can revive you here, or suddenly twist your face into an unexpected smile and remind you that despite all the suffering -- and also in light of it -- there is so much to continue fighting for.

In the last few weeks, I have been profoundly moved by what I've seen. I have a new sense of death, a new sense of innocence, a new sense of the former's disregard for the latter.

I have also gained perspective that will stick with me the rest of my life.

What we are doing here at TTL is fighting on the side of innocence, against death's arbitrary hand. And somehow, that's enough, as long as we don't give up.

Snow or no snow, each day is a new beginning, a fresh start, another chance to fight.

All that matters is that we rise to the challenge, bruised from the day before or not.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

...yet again...

"Stop!" I want to scream. "Enough."

I know there is nothing more I can do or TTL can do or anyone can do, but I feel inadequate.

Death has come yet again. Lipuo died last night at the hospital.

I got a call from M'e Nthabeleng shortly before midnight.

"Lipuo passed away," she said, and I could feel myself trying to jolt further out of sleep, to wrap my brain around the news.

"Can you pick up M'e Mathabang from C Ward?" M'e Nthabeleng asked.

"Yeah," I said, still processing everything.

"Sorry to wake you up so late," M'e Nthabeleng said.

"No problem," I said.

I got out of bed and got dressed in the cold darkness of my rondaval, using my cell phone for light. Outside my cocoon of blankets, the room was very cold, but I barely felt it. My mind was counting babies…Ithateng, Nketeleng, Nthabiseng, Mathapelo, Liteboho, Lipuo…

I went and picked up M'e Mathabang, the safe-home caregiver who was staying at the hospital with Lipuo, and brought her back to TTL. In the short car ride back, she and I talked briefly, as best we could, about our shared frustration.

"Ke swabile," I said. "I'm sorry."

"Ach," she said. "Lipuo."

"Too many babies," I said.

"Ey," she said.

"Did she stop breathing?" I asked.

"Ey," she said.

"Ach," I said.

I was back in bed before I knew it, but I couldn't fall asleep for a while after, not until I consciously stopped myself from thinking about it all, forced myself instead to think of back home and good friends and other things to carry my mind away.

Poor Lipuo. So adorable. So sad. Taken so quickly. Too soon. Too soon. Too soon.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Not the only one

...It's been a tough few weeks. I'm tired and feel a bit run down. The past couple days I've been avoiding the babies because I have a cold that won't shake. Still, there's so much to do. Life doesn't pause and I feel like the world is swirling around me at an ever-quickening pace.

As a group, I think the babies are turning a corner. It no longer seems like a giant amalgam of illnesses is barreling through the safe-home at breakneck speed. Karabo is her happy self again, Nthati is smiling far more and Nteboheng is almost at the point of being healthy enough to go home.

But some of the babies still aren't faring well.

Selloane is still feverish. Lipuo is in the hospital with the same respiratory symptoms that Ntseliseng had last week. Ntseliseng is sitting up and eating much more and breathing calmly, but she was so sick last week -- and so weak when we first got her -- that she's in constant threat. I worry about her the most.

With all that's been going on, it's been easy to forget the world outside of Mokhotlong. Sometimes the sense of isolation in this place is stark and in your face, but when things get truly hectic, you forget it. It becomes an emotional relic, tied to reality only by the slowly fleeting novelty of being here.

In a way, forgetting the isolation alleviates it. But in another, more insidious way, forgetting the isolation gives it a secret power, a tethered control over your subconscious mind. You begin to suffer from it unknowingly, simply by failing to acknowledge it outright.

Living here, there are moments when I suddenly pause, sit back and reconsider where I am and what I am doing, and marvel at the world and its vastness. It was in one of those moments last night when I thought about the forgotten isolation, and yearned for some larger context, any sort of context, for everything that's been happening here. I felt the need to take a step back, to think about the broader picture behind the struggle I find myself entrenched in.

It was then that I remembered the article from The Observer that I had been sent earlier in the day by two different people, the one I had saved on my desktop but hadn't yet read. I quickly opened the file.

The article's headline read, "Lesotho's people plead with South Africa to annex their troubled country."

The lead paragraph of the story, written by Alex Duval Smith from Maseru, read, "Thousands of people in the impoverished Commonwealth kingdom of Lesotho have asked South Africa in effect to annex their state because it has been bankrupted by the HIV pandemic."

Two paragraphs below, Sentebale's Acting Country Director Bahlakoana Manyanye, who I have met and who is a big supporter of TTL, is quoted as saying, "Aids has killed us…Lesotho is fighting for survival. We have a population of about 1.9 million but there may be as many as 400,000 Aids orphans among us. Life expectancy has fallen to 34. We are desperate."

Further down, the article states the following: "Uniquely in the developing world, Lesotho's deaths are close to outnumbering its births. A third of the population is HIV positive."

Apparently, a petition to have Lesotho integrated into South Africa as the larger country's 10th province has 30,000 signatures. The fact that South Africa has heightened border restrictions for the World Cup is one of the factors playing a role in the discussion.

In a way, this article was just what I needed. All of it is context for what TTL does, and helped me see the bigger picture again. We are serving the most vulnerable children in one of the world's most desperate countries, ravaged so fiercely by HIV/AIDS that many of its proud countrymen are willing to give up autonomy in exchange for help.

From an American standpoint, the willingness to have one's country swallowed by another is hard to understand. But here, it's easy. In four months, one gets a thorough sense of the vastly different resources of South Africa and Lesotho. You see the state of the roads diminish rapidly as you cross the border into Lesotho. There are things you can easily shop for in South Africa, but must go without in Lesotho. Sometimes, looking at South Africa, Lesotho feels like little more than a bubble of beautiful mountains and ingrained destitution. It makes you want South Africa's resources for Lesotho. It makes you wonder what the best path forward is, and whether it will be taken.

Who knows what will happen with this annexation movement. I can't say I know which route would be best. Who knows if later in my life, I will talk about working for a year in a country that is no more, and about TTL as a South African organization.

Either way, the article helped me take a breather and re-evaluate TTL's role. It helped me see Mokhotlong as part of the larger world again. It helped me realize that while I feel a bit run down, I'm obviously not the only one here who does.

This struggle that we are in is exhausting, plain and simple, and the sense that I'm not the only one who feels that way is…well, helpful. For one, it's a slap in the face of the isolation.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

"Se kenye mofu ka mona"

Yesterday, Friday, was a long, crazy day.

It ended with one of the most chilling experiences of my life.

In the morning I awoke early and trekked through the darkness down to the safe-home, the light from my headlamp leading the way. With Ntseliseng still at the hospital, the bo'me were still a bit short-staffed, and with a bunch of babies sick, there was a lot of comforting and bottle feeding to be done.

I took turns holding two-month old Mamello and the five-month-old twins Bohlokoa and Bohloeki. It is amazing to hold them consecutively, as it really gives you a sense of just how small the twins are. Mamello is bigger than them, despite being less than half their age.

Still, the twins look good. Bohloeki is a great eater and chowed down on the bottle I fed her. Bohlokoa makes strange, hugely expressive faces and is very cute.

I also held Nthati, who has been battling her strange respiratory illness and rash for two weeks now. She finally seems to be pulling out of it, and it was so great to be able to get smiles out of her this morning. I played a simplified version of peek-a-boo with her as I held her in my arms, and her cute little laugh filled the room.

After the morning rush, I hit the road with Dr. Amy Hutton, on our way to Maseru so Dr. Amy could catch her flight home. She was great here and really helped with the sick babies.

She and I handled a couple of errands in the city, and after dropping her off at the Moshoeshoe Airport, I turned around and headed back to Mokhotlong. We had left at about 8:30 a.m., and I arrived back home a little after 8 p.m.

When I got home, I ate a quick dinner the great volunteers here Emma, Quinn and Claire, had prepared, as they told me about their day and the new baby in the safe-home, who had just arrived a few hours before.

"He's smaller than any baby I have ever seen," Quinn said.

Born premature on May 20, tiny, tiny, tiny Liteboho was only about 3 pounds. His mother wasn't producing breast milk, so Liteboho had essentially been surviving on water until the Malefiloane clinic referred him to TTL.

The last note in his Bukana reads, "Plan: Refer to TTL for formula, feeding and any assistance."

Just minutes after hearing about him being in the safe-home, I was in the kitchen when Bokang, our security guard, appeared in the doorway.

"Ntate Kevin," he said. "The bo'me have a problem."

"With one of the babies?" I asked.

"Yes," Bokang said. "They are saying he is dead."

I ran down to the safe-home to find the bo'me sitting around the bedroom, with all the babies sleeping around them, talking in quiet, frustrated tones.

"Where is he?" I asked.

One of the bo'me pointed to a large pillow on the ground that seemed to have an empty white blanket on top of it. It was only after I took a second look that I realized Liteboho was there, under the blanket -- the size of a small doll, silent, not breathing, dead.

M'e Nthabeleng arrived a few minutes later. We took a towel, and wrapped little Liteboho's body up. Then I lifted him off the ground, and cradled him in my arms. He was still warm. I can't describe the feeling other than saying it was an eerie, deep, sadness, one made more confusing for the fact that I had never met the boy in my arms.

Nthabeleng drove us over to the hospital, where a security guard met us at the mortuary.

The room was simple, filled with freezers that held the bodies of Mokhotlong's recently deceased. It was cold in the room, and there were a few concrete slabs used for washing bodies.

The names of the deceased were written on pieces of paper, taped to the doors of the freezer compartment. I scanned the many doors and didn't see an unoccupied one. I also noticed that about a dozen of the 30 or so compartments had a single phrase written on them: "Se kenye mofu ka mona."

I asked Nthabeleng what it meant, and she said the rough translation was, "Don't put a body in here."

All of the compartments marked with that phrase were broken, and my initial thought that there were no empty, working compartments available proved correct. M'e Nthabeleng spoke rapidly with the guard, who then opened one of the compartments. A man's body, wrapped in a sheet, with his head closest to us, lay there. I stared.

"Put him on the chest," Nthabeleng said.

"What?" I said.

"There's no where else. On his chest."

Slowly, I reached into the freezer compartment, my face moving closer and closer to the sheet-covered face, and placed little Liteboho on the man's chest. As I stepped back, Nthabeleng moved forward and turned Liteboho's body around, into the position in which a baby might sleep on his father's chest.

"There," she said. "That's better."

Last night, I tossed in bed a long time, thinking about the two bodies in the freezer. I wondered who the man was, whether he had children of his own. I wondered at the ridiculousness of the situation, the horrible lack of resources that causes an overwhelmed mortuary, and the intimacy of placing a deceased baby softly on the chest of a deceased man -- two Basotho laying together, taken too early from this world. I thought about Liteboho's warm, lifeless body in my arms.

The phrase "Se kenye mofu ka mona" repeated itself in my head.

A Friday night out on the town in Mokhotlong. This is a strange world.

Even though we only had Liteboho in the safe home for a few short hours, his death still feels like a loss, of which there have been too many lately.

But it also strengthens my resolve once more. It re-enforces the reality that there are countless babies who are in desperate need of TTL's help and resources.

After stewing in bed last night for a long time, it was that resolve that finally let me drift off to sleep.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Good Tired

It's almost five o'clock and I'm tired, but it's a good tired.

Part of being a fellow here at TTL is being available when things are needed -- no matter what time it is -- and sometimes that means long hours. But the needs are always such important needs, and mean so much to little babies, that you can't and don't resent them. They can exhaust you, sure, but they also give you a great sense of commitment, of being of value, of contributing in a way that means something.

Last night I had just left work and finished making dough for homemade tortillas for dinner when Dr. Amy Hutton -- a visiting friend of TTL from Washington State -- came into the kitchen and said she thought Ntseliseng needed to go to the hospital. Poor Ntseliseng is still not breathing well and looks awful. She can barely sit up and hasn't improved since last week. I had already been worried about her earlier in the day before she'd gone downhill, so I immediately agreed with Dr. Amy, and washed the dough from my hands.

Kirsten left on Saturday for home, her fellowship having come to a close. But the same day I picked up Dr. Amy, two Canadian volunteers Emma and Quinn, and Claire, a visiting Notre Dame student who has been to TTL before and who is doing research for her thesis on food insecurity. So it's a full house here at TTL -- and nice to have a doctor around.

Dr. Amy, Claire, one of the bo'me and I all took Ntseliseng over to the hospital. The pediatric ward, known as C Ward, is kind of a sad place. It becomes even more jolting when you are waiting for a doctor with a baby who is laboring to breathe, who isn't eating and is tiny, malnourished, in desperate need of help. A doctor finally came and began to examine Ntseliseng and ask questions, and because of a myriad of emotions and thoughts and visual stimuli, the moment seemed unreal.

A leaky faucet ran free in a sink, and water dripped from the bottom of the sink into a half-full bucket. The darkness of the world outside seemed close. Other bo'me with their own sick children sat in the neighboring ward room, talking softly. We all pulled on face masks to protect against Ntseliseng's horrible cough. The doctor listened to Ntseliseng's lungs. Ntseliseng, tiny, shirtless and holding back tears, looked from adult to adult, into our eyes, which I thought must have seemed to loom at her from above our face masks. In her eyes, it was clear that she was wondering what was wrong, begging to know why she couldn't breathe well. I held her little hand and she rubbed one of her fingers along the edge of one of mine.

Again, the lack of resources at the hospital -- especially at night -- became apparent, and we were told that the hospital was out of the antibiotics the doctor wanted to prescribe, and that a chest X-ray wouldn't be available until the next morning.

Still, Ntseliseng was admitted and was given an injection of another medicine that seemed to calm her down and help with her breathing, and after returning to TTL to pack a bag for the 'me who stayed overnight at the hospital with her, Dr. Amy, Claire and I were able to eat dinner and hit the sack.

This morning, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to help the bo'me in the safehome with breakfast, as they were short-staffed with one of them at the hospital.

I fed tiny little Bohloeki, the female twin who came last week, from a bottle and rocked her back and forth when she started crying. I held Selloane close in my lap to comfort her against her slight fever, which has since broken, thankfully. As I held her, I drew animals for Nteboheng on construction paper with my free hand, according to her directions.

"Ntja!" Nteboheng said, and I drew a dog.

The rest of today was spent revisiting Ntseliseng at the hospital -- where we got the chest X-ray, which shows likely pneumonia -- and driving out to St. Theresa, the clinic where our Thaba Tseka outreach team operates.

We just got back not too long ago. I feel like I've been going since yesterday morning. But it feels good. It's a content tired. A happy tired.

Holding Ntseliseng's little hand at the hospital where nothing seemed to be going in her favor was hard. And in general there is so much illness and sadness. But all of the little things -- holding a hand here, drawing a dog there -- add up to be something special to me: a challenge to the sadness.

Ntseliseng seems like she is doing better, and I hope both she and I sleep well tonight.