Monday, September 27, 2010

A Struggle and a Departure

He waved.

I waved back, felt a shot of emotion and tried to smother the grimace I felt rising to the surface of my face.

Retsepile lay in the hospital bed with a nasogastric tube going through his nose into his stomach, his hands wrapped up completely in bandages and tape to prevent him from pulling the tube out. His face looked gaunt, so much so that he resembled a skeleton more than a little boy of 18 months. His body, under his clothing, appeared almost as nothing, a long, thin stretch of bones and skin.

The small wave of his bandaged, club-like arm was the most movement I'd ever seen from him. During the preceding days in the safe-home, he lay motionless and silent -- staring back at me wide-eyed, but showing no specific acknowledgement. Until the wave, I'd been unsure of how much he was taking in.

Now, in another environment, surrounded by other women and children and hospital staff, he had recognized me, and used the little strength he had to show it by waving.

Utterly emaciated. Shockingly alive in a way I would have thought impossible, even in a world of impossibilities. Retsepile began having serious diarrhea that very morning. Already in horrible condition, 'Me Mamosa took him to the hospital at the first sign of further deterioration. After placing the nasogastric tube through his nose, the doctor at the hospital said Retsepile "probably won't make it," a phrase that made Nthabeleng angry and saddened me.

That was Friday. On Saturday morning, one of our outreach workers and I drove the two-and-a-half hours to Retsepile's remote village in the St. Martin area of Mokhotlong district, to find Retsepile's mother and bring her back to the hospital to be with her son. In the rolling hills of the village, windswept and with a beauty unmatched in many parts of the district, we parked near the St. Martin clinic, where dozens and dozens of villagers had gathered for a game of net ball -- which is basically basketball with no dribbling, played on a stretch of dirt and with a hoop that had no backboard. After absorbing the stares of the crowd, who all must have wondered what I was doing there, I set off with Nthabeleng, our outreach worker. We hiked uphill for about 10 minutes -- the sun and the wind and the willows and the narrow dirt paths up the steep slopes making everything seem dreamlike -- into Retsepile's village, where we found his mother at home in her rondaval.

Today, Monday, she is at the hospital with Retsepile, who is still fighting against the predictions of the doctor. His diarrhea has slowed, and I'm starting to gain hope again for him. He is a fighter, and if he continues on it will be an amazing victory of will.

Aside from Retsepile heading to the hospital, here at the safe-home, our group continues to change.

As I mentioned before, Ntseliseng left while I was away. She and I had gotten close. The fact that she walked out of the safe-home on her own is absolutely remarkable. A young aunt came forward to be her care-giver -- a wonderful thing after Ntseliseng's mother died so tragically just before she came to us.

Today, Karabo went home.

Karabo came here not for her own illness but because of the illness of her mother. Still, she has grown and thrived here at TTL, and looks fatter still than when I left the country at the beginning of the month.

She is happy, smiles and knows me well, laughing and playing with me even while the other babies here, all of whom are still getting used to me, look on warily. I will miss Karabo's chuckle. I will miss having a play buddy in the safe-home, although I am confident that I will win the others over soon. Boraki is starting to smile at me more, though he is still nervous.

It is a happy thing that Karabo is going home. All throughout her stay here, her mother has come to visit routinely. Watching her interact with Karabo, I know she is a caring woman with a gentle touch, a warm smile and a genuine love for her daughter. Now that she is healthy again, Karabo will be in good hands.

In anticipation of her departure, I spent the morning playing with Karabo, her sweet giggles vibrating against my chest as she dug her forehead into my neck. I threw her in the air and she squealed. I helped her pick the toy she would take along with her. When the time came, I carried her out and put her in the car seat, talking to her in happy tones to make the moment less scary.

She laughed with me until it was time for the car to leave. Then she looked nervous as I kissed her cheek, said good-bye and closed the door.

Another tough good-bye, but another victory for TTL.

Let's hope Retsepile will pull through, and be one of those victories as well.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hitting Home

What a whirlwind trip and a strange set of experiences.

After seven months in Mokhotlong, I returned to the United States for a two week vacation at the beginning of this month. I am now back in Mokhotlong for another five months.

The quick back-and-forth provided a heavy dose of perspective.

Of course, I grew up, and have lived most of my life, in the world I returned to. But somehow it all seemed different.

Traveling from Mokhotlong to my parents' home in Maryland consisted of a 4-hour drive from Mokhotlong to Maseru, a 1-hour flight from Maseru to Johannesburg, an 18-hour flight from Johannesburg to Washington, and a 1-hour drive from Washington to Maryland.

Despite the many legs and the many miles, it seemed like a shockingly quick transition. It was startling to find myself in such affluence in the United States, just a few days after being in the extreme poverty of Mokhotlong. I had the strange sense that a long sea voyage across the Atlantic would have somehow been more appropriate, would have at least given me time to digest things mentally.

Culture shock is an overused phrase, but I had it -- in the reverse. I felt overwhelmed and caught off guard by familiar things, was surprised that old things felt new, that the dull realities of my former life seemed sharp, that I'd taken so many things for granted before.

After the relative isolation of Mokhotlong, I was surrounded by family and friends. There was a ton of food. Everything -- from the lawns to the roads to the neatly lined fences -- looked too perfect and beautiful at the same time. Showering barefoot felt weird. Dollar bills looked too long and skinny. The ease of communication and the efficiency of services jumped out at me. My four-month-old nephew, who I met for the first time, seemed huge compared to the babies in Mokhotlong, and he is.

People asked me about my experiences at TTL again and again, and I couldn't find the right words. None seemed sufficient. I offered all I could, but felt I was conveying a glossy, wrapped-up version of it all. I tried and failed to convey what it feels like when a baby lies dead in your arms, or when another one has recovered from deaths doorstep, laughs happily and kisses you on the cheek.

Searching through my memories, I tried to pull out the most poignant, the ones that would help others understand. But in the furious pace of life that comes during a short stint to see so many loved ones, and which comes in the U.S. in general, I felt the memories fleeting, becoming cloudy even in my own head. At times, the feeling made me not want to share the memories, made me want to isolate them from dissolution, to quarantine them against the threat of their disappearance. It was as if they might all vanish into the wind at any moment.

Partly because of that, returning to Mokhotlong has been equally strange. The long travels again went by in the blink of an eye, and when I was suddenly back, again so far from the home I had just left, it was a new world once more that met me.

Winter has left and the trees have all turned green. Ntseliseng has gone home. Karabo and Boraki look much bigger. And there are a handful of new babies in the safe-home to get to know.

I cooked my first night back, something I do a lot here but didn't do once in my two weeks in the U.S. I woke up in the morning and it was warm outside -- not frigid like the mornings before I left. Everyone welcomed me back, and I starting trying to catch up on things.

I was happy to see that TTL had continued chugging along during my absence.

I now have five months left here, and I plan to make the most of them.

After returning to the United States and coming back to Mokhotlong once more, I have a more profound understanding than ever of the vast differences between the two places, of the privileges I grew up with and the basic amenities they lack here, of the disparity, the need, the potential.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

More Arrivals

Here's another update from Eric:

Hello again,

It has been busy the last few weeks as healthy babies go home and others continue arriving here at the safehome. We have added two more little one in the last few days, totaling nine babies currently at TTL.
Refiloe (on the right) arrived last Friday, just two weeks old and weighing 2.3 kg. As has happened quite often recently, the mother unfortunately passed away during birth. We will keep her here as the outreach teams contact other family members in search of a suitable home. I was informed yesterday of our newest arrival, Retsepile, by Nthabeleng yelling that I 'have another one'. He is 18 months old and extremely malnourished, weighing only 5.3 kg. He is HIV+ and will be starting ART on Monday. Paballo, who arrived last week, is eating for two now and even smiling when you rub her bulging belly. Ntseliseng, a staff favorite, went home last week after making a truly remarkable transformation. I hope everyone is doing well and lets hope the good fortune continues here at the safehome.

All the best,

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

New Arrivals

I haven't posted in a while because I am currently in the U.S. visiting family and friends.

But, Eric, our new fellow, sent me an update yesterday on the safe-home's two newest residents, Retsepile, far left, and Paballo:

Yesterday was a busy day here at the safehome. In addition to the usual crying, laughing and howling wind, there was added noise thanks to two new arrivals.

Early in the morning, before heading out on outreach, Matello was at the hospital and met a man who obviously needed some support. His wife had just given birth to a baby girl on Friday. The mother unfortunately passed away shortly after birth, leaving the father unsure what to do and needing to make funeral arrangements. Their first two babies together died shortly after birth and the father turned to TTL asking to make sure this one doesn't die as well. So we have welcomed
Retsepile to the safehome. She weighs 2.6 kg, is eating and appears healthy.

Shortly after lunch we received our second surprise of the day. A young mother showed up at TTL with her 16 month old daughter.
Paballo is so malnourished. At 66.5 cm, she weighs just 4.7 kg. The child had been suffering from diarrhea and was taken to the hospital. The child was discharged from the hospital, even as the diarrhea continued and the child lost still more weight. So the mother brought her here and we decided to keep her in hopes of seeing some improvement. The diarrhea has stopped today and the next challenge is getting her to eat.

I have included photos taken this morning and I will keep you updated on our progress here.

All the best,