Monday, July 26, 2004

take me to the water...

i went to uganda a few weeks ago. i got back a week from yesterday and i went to sleep at 7:30 pm for a week to combat my jetlag. however, i find myself still in a daze.

am i still tired? is it because when i travel i am ridiculously picky where food is concerned and therefore eat next to nothing, and my body is struggling to regain precious brain cells lost during two weeks of anorexia?

i don't really know. i do know i have been quieter and more laid-back since i returned. so here's some of my trip. although i have no readers (at all), this website is really the only place where i catalog my sentiments. (unless you count that green composition notebook, bedside, which takes care of all my dating failures.)

so here is the itinerary. you will go to africa with some people you know (some you don't) and check on the status of a school being built by a charitable organization run primarily in the capital of kampala with funding and guidance from arlington, virginia. you'll tour local primary schools whose pupils do not have the benefit of (relatively) rich american donors, meet with local VIP's including district education officers and members of parliament (even the u.s. ambassador), live without electricity or running water for a week, go to the source of the nile on a trip from kampala to the village and visit the ugandan equivalent of target (game,). you'll also go to a local hospital.

you will thank god you were born in a rich country, and when you get back, you'll look at your previously insurmountable-appearing bills and problems, and shake your head. they're nothing. they're absolutely nothing.

i sat next to a little girl in a classroom. at the arlington academy of hope (the name of the school built in bumwalukani village, near mbale in eastern uganda), the pupils get lunch. this is rare: most students do not eat lunch during the schoolday. (you can imagine how this affects afternoon attendance rates.) her head was on the desk, which was what we americans would call a bench really. i entered the room at first because i noticed that another little girl in the classroom was stroking her head. after i sat down next to her, i began speaking, but quickly became convinced she had no idea what i was saying. it's quite possible she did but was too sick to respond. she lifted her head and looked at me, weak with red, irritated eyes. i felt her forehead. burning. fire. moments in life when you wish you were a doctor. i took out a wet-nap and brushed it across her forehead, then gave her friend another and told her to tell her friend to use it to help cool down. i stepped out and got a glass of water from the room where all of my travelling partners were eating lunch...i wasn't quite sure where the kids get water from for themselves. i came back in. her head was down again and i began rifling through my bag to find my advil, not really knowing if that works on a fever. another traveller came in and looked at the girl, looked at me, said, "malaria?" and i said, "i guess so." i continued rifling and finally found the advil, and as i twisted off the cap, i wondered in an off-hand sort of way if it was malaria, and if it was, what kind of treatment there really was for this girl. i gave her the water and the advil and after reassurance from another little girl that she would make sure it was taken, i left the room.

i sat on a bench. there were kids playing with jumpropes and frisbees that we had brought with us. other kids were walking around with their brightly colored dishes, full of rice, beans and tomatoes. they were happy.

what kind of world lets it happen, when what she has is treatable? is it just that no one cares? if only it were that simple. there are a lot of explanations for why she had to sit there suffering like that, but all i could think of was two weeks last december when i was stricken with strep, the flu, and ear infections all at once. i laboured under a fever of 104 for days and actually hallucinated body parts detaching themselves. i went to the doctor (with my employer-provided [although i do contribute to a premium] health insurance) and got about five prescriptions, all of which i took as if they were the most precious thing known to man. tell me why i can go get prescriptions that will make me better in four days and there's a strong possibility that that little one, even if she went to the hospital miles and miles away, would find it without stock of the proper pills and wouldn't be able to afford the pills anyway. tell me why.

i was up at the house we were staying at later that day. i don't remember where i was, whether i was holding a kerosene lantern on the way to the latrine, whether i was sitting in my little room i shared with a teacher from arlington traditional school here in the u.s., whether i was outside on a bench starting to look at those stars (and oh, the stars,), but a little girl who lived there and went to arlington academy of hope came over to me. it took me a minute but after she spoke i recognized her as the little girl who had been taking care of the sick one, and she said to me, "millie says thank you; she feels much better now."

there's a quiet part within you that reacts to information like that with such gratefulness, but also such misunderstanding and shock...first, i knew millie couldn't be feeling that much better with a fever like the one she had, one advil won't solve that; second, i was still worried about her and wanted to ask more but restrained myself, it isn't like i had a spare malaria prescription on me and i really didn't even have any money to offer to help with treatment; third, why did she have the name of my grandmother who died only a few months ago?

millie wasn't a popular name in uganda. esther, my mother's name, was everywhere. millie wasn't. if i were a nihilist i would count this experience up to the vague coincidences of life. as time goes on, however, i find myself no longer believing that there are coincidences, but things god plans to make you understand certain things, to drive points home, like any good teacher would.

...breathe out again