Friday, February 17, 2012

My defining moment in Africa

Cross-posted from Joel in Zambia

February 16

Hi all!

I just got back from the most amazing experience. When I think back to my time spent in Zambia, this will be what I recall.

On Sunday, we ate our "last instant noodles" while we waited for Lihana to come and pick us up. Toni, Sylvia, Esther, and I didn't quite know what to expect. We knew that Lihana ran a clinic in Matoya and that she was South African. That's it. It was a bit of a mystery trip: only four people could go, it occured once and only during the fourth week, and the details of the trip shifted from a two hour walkabout to a ten minute walk.

After working around her dead car battery, Lihana arrived at our house to pick us up. We quickly met Nasilele and Alinan (our translators), Lloyd (an evangelist and restauranteur), and Graeme and Tara (an Irishman and a young South African who were taking us to our bushcamp).

Sylvia and I hopped into Graeme's truck and pulled onto the road to Limulunga. We drove and drove and then drove until we, literally, ran out of road. The street crumbled away into dirt and the dirt eventually gave way to a narrow, carved out path winding through the trees. Although we hadn't planned on arriving in the dark, the sun set anyway.

Graeme successfully navigated us through the swerving and bumpy paths until we arrived into a village. We pulled over briefly for some introductions to be exchanged and then got back in for a much shorter drive. An open wooden structure appeared in the headlights and we drove up to it. Next to it, there was a clearing where we were to set up our tents.

It's kind of an odd situation to drive off into the middle of.. somewhere.. with a group of strangers and set up camp where you will live together for a few days. Although you know that you'll all be friends soon enough, you can't help but wonder what you're doing.

Because of Lihana's advice, I tried to smooth out the sand before setting up my tent. I finally put it together only to be relocated to another tent. With an ill-fitting fly. And a brick for a peg. Undeterred, I plopped all my things into it.

Before long, dinner was ready. Mince and vegetables on rice. We were pretty hungry by then and it was delicious and satisfying. We spent some time around the fire and went to bed.

The next day, we woke up around 0630, ready for our first clinic. Under the rising sun, we could finally see where we were. To the left of the tents was a latrine hidden in the trees. To its right, a barrier for bathing.

Out of the woods was the wooden structure and to its left, our semi-circle of tents. Finally, ahead, was a beautiful vista. Long grasses leading out into an endless plain. A modest soccer field to the right and unseen villages in either direction.

After breakfast, we grabbed our six stools, our "pharmacy" (a box of medicines), and our many books and things. We turned left onto the sandy path and walked down past a village. At the next village was a couple of houses. One of the houses was vacated by a woman and her children just for our clinic. She moved elsewhere so that we could see people there.

We moved her few pieces of furniture around to create two different clinical areas. A couch for two nurses and a few stools for the translator and clients, and a two armchairs with a few stools for the rest. Then, we emptied our medications onto a table and we were open for business.

Lloyd and Lihana introduced us and Ali led the people that had gathered around in song. Lloyd then preached for a while and then the clinic was open!

The days went like this: Patients would stream in, we would take their name, gender, age, and complaints. Complete an assessment, jot down our impressions, and prescribe medications. Hop up, gather the pills and solutions, and instruct the patients on how to take them. Up they go and in come some more patients.

It was incredibly busy. In the three days (and a couple of hours) we managed to see nearly 200 patients. We would begin at 0900 and would work solidly until 1700 or later with about an hour break in the middle. Each day, we went back to bushcamp exhausted.

We diagnosed many skin diseases, eye problems, dental issues, muscle aches, angina, and really everything under the sun. After diagnosing, we would have to figure out what to give for it. The books we had were incredibly useful and we were confident about what medications we gave out.

In the evenings, we would get to eat delicious meals (even the nshima wasn't too bad!). Then we would sit around the fire and chat for hours. I quickly came to like Lihana, Lloyd, Nasilele, and Ali. They are all wonderful people who seem like they were born just to help others.

On Wednesday, we managed to run out of patients early and took the opportunity to continue down the path and visit villages. As we walked, we were treated to many neat things. We visited a family preparing cassava and Sylvia and Toni got the chance to try pounding it. Another lady invited us into her home for a tour and she showed us the traditional percussion anklets that girls wear when they start puberty (and then did a little jig for us!)

Further down, we watched an older man as he skillfully put together a grass mat. We walked as far as we could go and visited each village. Everybody was so kind to us and would smile and wave at us as we passed. We shook hands with almost every adult we encountered (Metozi shwani! Metozi hunday. Encha!). Some of the people that we met had previously been in the clinic and so we were able to provide some follow-up care.

On our way back, somebody gave us a big bag of maize (soon to be roasted!), someone else gave us several sugar canes, and Lihana and Nasilele bought a couple of grass mats. Everyone smiled and waved at us some more as we headed back to the village to care for some more people that had arrived.

That evening, our neighbours had caught wind that we were having a bonfire with singing and dancing. Right on cue, as the sun set, people arrived at our camp ready to enjoy the fire with us. We laughed and sang and had a wonderful time under the stars (and there are a lot of stars here!).

The next day, we packed up our things and walked back to the clinic for the last time. We gave care to everybody that showed up and then closed up the house.

Several people came to camp to see us off and I have to say that I was actually quite sad to leave. Everyone had been so kind to us and were very welcoming. We drove off that afternoon and came back to Malingwa.

Overall, it was a phenomenal experience. Lihana gave us lots of independence and we had plenty of opportunity for critical thinking. I really enjoyed meeting the people of Mawekulipe (MAH-way-ku-LEEP-eh). I learned so much during my time there and felt priviledged to provide them with care.

Truly, this has been my most defining time in Africa.

- Joel

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