Saturday, January 29, 2011

Waking Up to Death

My emotions are running high. I am still processing everything that happened. Writing is always cathartic for me, and so I've turned to write here:

I was woken up this morning with the all too familiar phrase, "Ntate Kevin, we need your help."

I jumped up, got dressed, and went down to the safe-home. There, in the changing room, was an 8-month-old TTL client named Thabiso. He looked the proper weight, looked relatively healthy, but his face was blank. I waved my hand in front of his eyes, to no response.

I followed Shamena, one of our safe-home caregivers, to the front of the office, to where the boy's parents were. The mother was crying, the father looked stricken. I asked what the problem was with the child, and was told that he was vomiting and had diarrhea and had been suffering from a high fever for about two days. I knew the combination of these symptoms to be an extremely serious one in young kids, and told the parents that they needed to take the boy to the hospital immediately.

Shamena and I went back to the changing room to get the boy, and knew immediately the awful truth: he was dead. We went through a few standard checks to confirm the grim reality that we already knew to be true. Shamena then tried to close little Thabiso's eyes, but they wouldn't remain shut. We were both uneasy. There were the parents in the other room. They had come to us for help, but it had been too late.

I scooped the tiny body into my arms and carried the bundle back to the parents. Few words were exchanged. I offered my condolences, and the mother wailed, and the father still seemed stricken.

I called Matello, our outreach coordinator, and went and picked her up from town and brought her back to TTL. She spoke with the parents briefly, and it was determined that we would take them and their lost child back to their village.

We all got in the car and started the long drive out to St. Martin, where they are from. About an hour into the trip, Thabiso's father had us stop in a village where a large number of people had gathered to welcome back a group of boys who had just gone through circumcision initiation. There he had a man on the street go and fetch his two brothers, Thabiso's two young uncles, who he knew to be there.

Again, the scene was hugely emotional, and the mother wailed, and the uncles shook in disbelief at seeing their brother and his wife obviously going through unbearable pain.

We continued on. When we got to their village, we all got out. Again the mother began wailing, which announced the horrible news to the village as we entered it. Neighbors and family members began pouring out of rondavals and coming to the grieving couple and the two uncles. The women went to the side of the mother, the men to the sides of the father and uncles.

We went into a large rondaval. One of the uncles collapsed against the wall and slid into a pile on the floor, weeping. Women formed a circle on the floor around Thabiso's mother, and collectively they moaned and rocked in anguish.

Village elders began arriving. I felt awful for the family, awkward and strange for being in this tight circle of grief as an outsider. One of the elders began praying, and we all dropped our heads in silence.

On the long drive home, Matello told me that Thabiso was the seventh of seven children of the young couple to die. The first six had all died in the first few months of their lives. Thabiso, at 8-months-old, had been their great hope. He had been healthy until the sudden fever and onslaught of diarrhea and vomiting.

Now back at TTL, I am still trying to process my morning. I feel so bad for the young couple. Why have they been given such a disproportionate amount of grief?

Is there an answer?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Right on Our Doorstep

This afternoon, Matello, our outreach coordinator, came to me with a pressing concern.

One of our safe-home caregivers had arrived at work with information about a young boy, in a village not five minutes from TTL named Checha, who appeared to be severely malnourished and in an unstable home situation.

The mother of 16-month-old Molefi had arrived with him at her own grandfather's house a few days before Christmas, ostensibly on a holiday visit. A few days later, she had vanished, leaving Molefi behind with his 75-year-old, half-blind and hard-of-hearing great grandfather.

The current location of Molefi's mother, and of his own grandparents, is unknown.

At times, TTL is reluctant to bring children to the safe-home who may never be able to be reunited with family once healthy. As TTL is not an orphanage, such situations can present a maze of problems, and it is sometimes better to refer the child directly to the Department of Social Welfare. At the same time, however, it is often a moral imperative that we intervene immediately -- as I felt was the case in this situation.

Matello and I made the decision to go to the village right away to assess the situation, and if necessary, talk to the village chief about bringing the child to the safe-home -- for reintegration concerns to be hashed out later.

When we arrived at the home, the stone front of which was crumbling, we talked to the great grandfather, who ushered us inside. There we found Molefi, and an older female cousin, sitting on the ground eating small bowls of papa and potatoes. The girl's mother, Molefi's aunt, was also in the home, behind a curtain, nursing her own baby.

Molefi was filthy and covered in flies, which I tried to swat away in vain. The great grandfather, obviously very caring, showed his concern and asked for our help. To stand Molefi up and show us the boy's malnourished condition, the old man tried to take the bowl of papa away from Molefi, who cried and clung to the bowl with what seemed a sad desperation for the scant calories it held.

I picked him up and carried him outside so we could weigh and measure him. As I began removing his clothes, I realized the bottom edge of his shirt, at the back, was caked in his own dried feces.

It didn't take long for us to determine that we would take Molefi with us. With that in mind, we loaded him and his great grandfather into our car and drove over to the home of the chief.

After a long discussion in Sesotho, the chief agreed to write a letter acknowledging his knowledge of the great grandfather's arrangement with TTL, and we were soon driving back to the safe-home, Matello holding Molefi in the passenger seat.

Since then, the bo'me here have given him a bath and dressed him in clean clothes. He is now sitting in the playroom, drawing the interest of the other toddlers in our care.

For me, the entire episode was a reminder of the massive need here in Mokhotlong -- not just in the surrounding villages, but practically on TTL's doorstep.

I wish I knew the reason why his mother felt she needed to leave him behind. But without that knowledge, I only feel the relief of knowing that he is now here, as safe and cared for as a child can be.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stopped in My Tracks

It's funny how sometimes, when a tough, out-of-the-ordinary task becomes routine, it takes just one, unexpected failure among regular successes to stop you in your tracks, to have you once again realize the enormity and impressiveness of the act.

Such was the case yesterday, when I was reminded once more of just how amazing TTL's outreach efforts are.

I was in the office, catching up on a number of things after being away, when I saw most of our outreach team through the front window, mulling around and loading up one of the cars. I opened the window to say hello to Matello, our outreach coordinator.

"Can you come with us?" she said.

At this point in my year here, I still go on outreach occasionally, but not when I'm swimming in office work, and I was a bit surprised at the request.

"Maybe," I said. "Why?"

"The Land Cruiser -- it's stuck."

Apparently, the day before, unbeknownst to me, one of our outreach teams had gotten TTL's gigantic and extremely powerful Toyota Land Cruiser -- a gift from UNICEF -- stuck in the mud past Malefiloane Clinic.

This shocked me.

I've been stuck in the mud in TTL's other cars, but never in the Cruiser. In the Cruiser, I've crossed through rivers; I've driven over boulders; I've off-roaded on mountain slopes; I've driven at inclines I never knew possible. In other words, in the Cruiser, mud is nothing.

"The Cruiser is stuck?"

"Yes," Matello said, "and you should come."

She explained that she and the other three Mokhotlong outreach workers, including our two male drivers, were all going in another TTL truck to try to pull the Cruiser out of the mud, but that they needed another driver so that one of the men could push from the outside while the two others drove. That other driver was me.

We set off through the mountains and I smiled as I took in their seasonal beauty. A crisscrossing pattern of peaks and valleys, turned green in the summer sun, shepherded mist clouds through their cracks.

"Is the Cruiser blocking the road?" I asked, suddenly curious as to whether there would be a line of angry people stuck on one side of the Cruiser or the other.

Silly me. I should have known better, really.

One of the outreach workers, Nthabeleng, who was sitting next to me, smiled, quickly showing in the expression that my question was irrelevant.

"No one drives there," she said.

About an hour after leaving TTL, we reached a particularly muddy stretch of the road, and there ahead I saw the Cruiser -- or, that is, I saw most of it. I laughed out loud.

We stopped and got out. The Cruiser looked as if it had been driving along the road when its front left wheel suddenly sunk a solid foot-and-a-half into the ground, its back left wheel sunk more than a foot, and its right wheels both sunk about half-a-foot.

The front left wheel was barely visible -- and these are big wheels. The Cruiser's major clearance was gone, mud up to the bottom of the car, with pools of muddy water collecting all around it, making the situation seem even more hopeless. When something like this can happen to a vehicle like the Land Cruiser, I thought, no wonder the old, battered taxi vans and the ancient trucks people drive don't come out here.

Just then, TTL's formidable presence in the surrounding mountains -- dotted with villages I know we have visited before and will visit again -- struck me on a deep level. We literally go where others can't and won't.

After a long process of tying the back of the Cruiser and the front of our other truck to a large, 4- or 5-foot metal tow bar, we all took our positions. I climbed through the mud into the driver's seat of the Cruiser. I felt there like I was in a boat, with the bottom half of my vessel submerged.

Both cars were started, and to my surprise, with the combination of both cars reversing -- the Cruiser's massive power still apparent despite being half sunk -- we got the Cruiser out of the mud. The herd boys milling around -- whose cows I thought we were going to have to recruit -- seemed impressed.

The drive back seemed quick. I spent it behind the wheel of the Cruiser, and as I drove up steep inclines, over rocks and through streams, I marveled once again at TTL's outreach program.

In my mind, it is only at the ends of the earth that the Cruiser would get stuck.

There we were. And there we will go again.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fat Faces Greet Me Home

I haven't posted in a while because I just returned to TTL today after spending two weeks on vacation, traveling through South Africa and Lesotho with two of my brothers, Conor and Casey.

Throughout our trip, our rapid transitions between Third World conditions and First World conditions -- between Lesotho and South Africa, but also within South Africa itself -- stood out, as did the quite obvious, physical separations we noted between the neatly lined official towns in South Africa and the dilapidated shanty towns on their outskirts.

We also enjoyed our time immensely -- among other things, we did the "World's Highest Bungee Jump" off Bloukrans Bridge -- and I was glad to be able to show my brothers Mokhotlong and TTL.

When I got back to TTL today, I was surprised -- just as I was in September, when I returned from a short trip to the states -- at how the babies in our care seem to have changed and recovered greatly in just two weeks.

When you see them every day, their recoveries seem far more gradual. Skipping two weeks, they seem as rapid as they are -- the kids fatter and more lively. Retsepile in particular seems a chunkier, happier baby overall.

We also have a new pair of twins here who were born at the beginning of the month: Thabelo and Ithabeleng. They are the first new clients in the safe-home in 2011, and are tiny, tiny, tiny. Thabelo is just over 5 pounds, while Ithabeleng is just under 5 pounds.

It feels good to be back after so much traveling. I'm at home again, and the fact that TTL has become that for me is now more apparent than ever.

It's hard to believe that I now have less than a month to go in my year-long fellowship, that I'll be moving back to my other "home" soon. I'm sure that fact is going to cause some conflicting emotions as the deadline looms closer.

For now, though, I'm just happy to see those fat faces. In the next month, I think I'll be sneaking into the playroom more than ever.