Friday, August 27, 2010

Taking Selloane Home

I scooped her up in the doorway of the playroom, and she turned in my arms and waved goodbye to 'Me Mamosa and the other bo'me in the room.

"Say 'bye-bye' to Ntseliseng," I told her, as Ntseliseng waved from the ground.

Selloane waved back. Then she looked down at my chest, and started nervously playing with my sunglasses, which I had stuck in the front of my collar. She may not have understood she was leaving for good, but she definitely knew something was up.

She cried when I put her in the car-seat, didn't know what was going on.

Once I climbed into the big Land Cruiser, sat in the seat next to her and handed her the light purple, animated stuffed bee she calls "Ausi Palesa" -- or, roughly, "Sister Flower" -- she calmed down, took a deep breath.

On the way out of town we stopped at a local store to buy her a new pair of shoes, which I immediately put on her after getting back in the car, and which she stared at happily.

Then there was the two hour trip -- rough and jolting -- to her remote village, not far from the rural Moeketsane clinic.

This is where, on my first week in Lesotho, we'd been directed to Selloane's rondaval by the elderly neighbor whose own grandchild was already a TTL client. This is where we first saw Selloane, tiny, malnourished, wasting.

Now, as we arrived once more in the village, just after I'd finished doing my best to feed Selloane two final yoghurts on the bumpy road, I recognized the dirt slope up to the little gathering of rondavals, Selloane's grandmother standing outside.

We stopped on a slope nearby. I unbuckled the car-set and handed Selloane over to 'Me Matumaole, one of the safe-home caregivers who had come along on the trip to make Selloane's transition easier.

We all walked over and said our hellos. A bunch of other children -- one Selloane's older sister -- began gathering around, staring at Selloane in her neat clothes and new shoes. Selloane nervously looked back.

Her grandmother and grandfather came over, and they both started talking quickly. All I could catch was Selloane's name, the first mention of which brought abrupt giggling from all the other kids -- they recognized her at last.

We went into the small, dark rondaval, and a handful of women joined us, all of them talking to and about Selloane. I gathered they were all amazed at her healthy appearance.

Selloane nervously moved about the room, time after time returning to me and stepping between my knees as I sat, her forearms on my thighs, looking back at the women who kept asking her to come to them. Time after time, I slowly pushed her forward, back toward her family members and neighbors.

It was a hard thing to do. I wanted to pick her up, just as she wanted me to. But that wouldn't have served our purpose. So I kept pushing her forward.

The elderly neighbor, the same woman who had first referred Selloane to TTL, came in next, and apparently couldn't believe her eyes. She started undressing Selloane and poking at her full legs and belly, drawing laughter from Matello, our outreach coordinator, and a big smile from me.

We gave Selloane's grandmother a bunch of food, candles, matches, laundry soap, a few other essentials and a bag full of clothes for Selloane.

Then, suddenly, it was time to go.

"Bye-bye, Selloane," I said, waving to her as she sat in her grandmother's lap.

She still looked nervous, but she slowly waved back.

Then we were back in the car, driving away, hoping she will do well, that she'll soon fit in with the group of kids who sat outside the rondaval smiling at her, that she'll grow up and thrive and be happy.

That's my wish. And because of TTL, there's a chance it will come true.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Winds of Change

The "windy season" has hit Mokhotlong, and the larger physical world finally seems to be on an even pace with TTL's swift current of change.

Winter has lost its teeth, although it still gnaws away roughly enough at night. Spring is rapidly approaching. The trees are budding light green, the air has lost its crispness and gained a soft relief, and the nearness and strength of the sun in this altitude are again things to be reminded of.

Not to be outdone -- and amidst the swirling, temperamental and powerful gusts that now shake the safe-home daily and deposit a layer of dust on everything in their path -- the pace of recovery among the seven babies now in our care continues to quicken.

They are seven now because Neo left on Friday, gone home with her mother and father after a stint her mother spent at the hospital. Despite both parents being in the picture, Neo's home life is a bit unstable, and I worry about her suffering for the insecurity. Still, our outreach teams will continue doing monthly check-ups to monitor her progress, and for that I rest a bit easier.

Boraki is back in the safe-home after spending a few days last week in the hospital with a high fever. He came to us so small and fragile that I was scared the fever would overcome his tiny immune system, but after a few days on an IV drip, he returned all the better.

I've since gotten him to smile a handful of times, making popping noises in his direction as I played with Selloane and Ntseliseng. In my time here, I've come to understand that the fastest way to get a child to trust you is to show him that other children trust you, and that seems to be the case with Boraki. I hope to win him over soon -- not least to push him further toward normal movement for his age. Despite being 11 months old, Boraki is still limited to sitting up on his own, in the style of a much younger child. Hopefully, as he continues to eat and recover, he'll start moving with the best of them.

Selloane continues to do extremely well, and will probably go home soon -- a thought that is a bit sad for me. She just recently began saying my name -- "Ntate Kebenny," just like Seithati used to say -- and I've no doubt become attached.

Ntseliseng, who I'm quite attached to as well, continues to develop in leaps and bounds, now walking -- confidently if a bit unsteadily -- across the entire playroom, an amazing feat given the state of her legs just a month or two ago.

Karabo just started an ARV regimen for her HIV that is making her nauseous, but hopefully she'll get used to the regimen, or the doctor will tweak it, and she'll be on a steady medicinal track soon.

Mpho and Nthabiseng, the tiny little boy and girl who have both lost a twin, are continuing to eat and grow.

Last Sunday I took Nkamoheleng to the private doctor in town for what seemed to be an infection in her eye. The doctor and I discussed her being born at home, the complications that can present for properly cleaning the baby after the delivery, and how that might be the cause of the eye infection. We got some drops for her eye, and it has cleared up nicely. Otherwise, she seems to be doing well.

As the world outside TTL gets tossed about in the wind, things continue moving and shaking in the safe-home, just as they always do.

It's a strange, whirling, unsteady feeling of balance.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Six Months In

I feel like a different person. I believe I am one.

A lot can happen in six months. That's always true, everywhere.

But when what happens is completely new and foreign and more intense than anything you've known before, the scope, the importance, the affect are all magnified.

I have now been in Mokhotlong for slightly more than six months. Half a year. Roughly 180 days. A period of time that seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye, but one I can also sift through endlessly, recalling more deeply-imprinted memories, more wrenching emotions, than I ever could have imagined prior.

I tend to analyze periods of time in my life the same way I analyze everything else -- scoring them, comparing them, holding them up against my expectations. But that doesn't really work with these last six months. They are different, almost illusory.

How do these past months score? The adjectives I would use to describe them seem contradictory in my head. They have been amazing, disturbing, shocking, uplifting, frustrating and remarkable. How will I respond to those who ask me about my time here? Yes, it was an amazing experience, but then there were also babies dying, and disease, and poverty, and terrible injustice…10 out of 10 on the amazing scale…15 out of 10 on the sadness scale…

How do these past months compare? They don't. They are in a league of their own. My life here seems detached from the rest of my life. Parallel. I worry when I return it will be like they never existed. A short stint in Never Never Land. A dream to lurch out of, awake and sweating, the visions fleeting and rapidly being lost despite a furrowed brow to remember in the dark.

How do these past months hold up against my expectations? They neither match them nor exceed them. All expectations on coming to a place like this are simply misguided. The immensity of the experience just isn't something you can predict. You see a line into the future, and then you make an abrupt turn into reality...

I wonder how this experience will shape who I am the rest of my life.

I will never think of death the same way. I will never think of life the same way either. I don't think I will ever feel sorry for myself again, but who knows?

I've definitely grown here. I think I am a bit less impetuous and a bit calmer. You can't hold a dead infant in your arms and remain the same, or think you are impervious to pain, or think your youth is invincible, or think it doesn't matter if you help other people or not.

In the blink of an eye I feel years older. My entire worldview has changed. I feel a deep sense of privilege for having been afforded the opportunity, relatively early in my life, to have this experience. I wonder what I will do with it moving forward.

Here's to another six months.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Nkamoheleng' story

As the days continue passing by, the immensity of need in Mokhotlong continues setting ever deeper into my psyche -- throbbing like a headache, assuaged only by the equally-constant rhythm of minor triumphs we experience here.

There is another baby girl in the safe-home. Her name is Nkamoheleng. Like all the babies in our care, she comes with a story -- a string of facts that amount to a threatened existence and a desperate need for help.

Nkamoheleng arrived at TTL on Wednesday, just one day old, weighing 2.4 kg, or about 5.3 pounds.

Her 18-year-old mother died while delivering at home, in her rural village. Her grandmother brought her to TTL the next day, seeking our help. Nkamoheleng had consumed nothing but water since the day before.

I can't help but to picture a dark rondaval, a woman in labor, dust in sharp rays of sunlight, sweat, complications, tension, more dust, blood, hushed commands from the matriarch or neighbor or whoever was brave enough to take the lead, more blood, devastating moans, and then a sudden silence from everyone but the tiny baby, crying for breast milk from a mother who she'll never know.

I wish that somehow we had known, that we had managed to get the teenaged mother to the hospital, that things had gone differently. But the facts are the facts. The sad first chapter of Nkamoheleng's story is already set in stone.

Thankfully, Nkamoheleng is eating well now, with no diarrhea or vomiting. She has a cute, round face. Minutes ago, she looked warm and content, wrapped in a blanket and held tight by one of the bo'me.

She doesn't know the tragedy that swirled around her in her first moments of life, the odds stacked against her. What she does know is that she is warm now, and full, and held.

In so many ways, the immensity of need here in Mokhotlong is wrapped up in Nkamoheleng's story.

Hopefully, the rhythm of TTL success will soon resound there as well.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Fresh paint

Some colorful changes have hit the TTL campus.

The grassy area behind the safe-home is now lined with half-buried tires, colorfully decorated in peach and white paint. Two brightly-painted tires, stacked atop each other, circle the thin tree in the middle of the yard as a makeshift bench of sorts. TTL's large garden has been completely tilled for spring planting. And on the front of our guard house, near the entrance to the campus, a large TTL sign has been painted to increase our visibility here. You can see the sign a long way down the road, almost to the entrance to the hospital -- a definite benefit for all those pointed in our direction by hospital staff.

Yesterday wrapped up a week of visits to the TTL campus by more than a dozen young representatives of Cadet 150, a military-affiliated program throughout the United Kingdom that, with the help of Sentebale, tackled a handful of projects in Lesotho this month as part of the 150th celebration of the cadets program.

The cadets' presence here was yet another benefit of TTL's great partnership with Sentebale.

During four separate visits, the cadets put their muscles to work tilling the gardens and digging the trenches that they eventually filled with the tires. They put their artistic skills to work painting the tires and the sign, which includes "Touching Tiny Lives" in bright lettering and the TTL symbol of the African continent with a handprint at the bottom. Everything looks great.

The cadets also donated lots of clothes and toys, and took time out to get to know the babies in the safe-home, who ate up the attention.

The backyard play area definitely has a spruced-up vibe that will increase the amount of stimulation for the babies when they head outside, and I know the sign will become a great beacon of hope for many of those looking in our direction for help.

The cadets have definitely left their mark on the TTL campus, just as I'm sure the babies here have left their mark on the cadets.

In that sense, I think we all benefited -- just as planned.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lucky Number 7

This afternoon, as four o'clock edged closer, things were slow in the office and I decided to see what was up with the babies.

I found them and the bo'me outside in the sun, on the swings behind the safe-home and playing by the slide. I pushed Selloane and Neo in the swings for a bit, and the afternoon felt unencumbered and light and happy. After a while they were out of the swings and looking for their next adventure. Soon it was a race between them, Karabo and Ntseliseng as all four decided it was their chance to explore the TTL grounds.

Along with a few of the bo'me, and later with Eric as well, the four girls and I ran around the property, laughing and playing. I caught them when they fell and cheered them on when they walked independently.

Not long ago, Karabo was only crawling. Ntseliseng was barely moving at all. Neo had a sort of bent over, all-fours walk she did, but that was about it.

Now Neo is taking off in quick strides, Ntseliseng has started taking steps all on her own, and Karabo isn't far behind. Their progress is amazing, and seeing it in full display made the afternoon that much more special.

Around 4:45 we called it an afternoon and brought everyone inside.

Minutes later, as often happens here, the struggles of the greater Mokhotlong world suddenly appeared at our doorstep once more, shattering the bubble of smiles.

One of our outreach teams arrived with an 11-month-old boy, Boraki, who only weighs 4.3 kg, or less than 10 pounds.

The last thing written in his Bukana is, "No food security at home. TTL please assist."

Boraki was exposed to HIV through his mother, but his tests haven't come back yet to tell us his status. He breastfed for seven days after birth, but then switched to a mixture of sour porridge, papa and formula from a rural clinic.

That pattern has done him no good. He's such a tiny little boy.

Along with the four older girls, he joins our other tiny two, Mpho and Nthabiseng, who have both lost a twin to death but who are fighting on themselves.

Here's hoping Boraki is lucky number seven.