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Thursday, March 11, 2010

I don't like this game anymore.

The story I want to tell you, and those involved, will not be done justice by my words; I have no intention of spinning a good tale or making a caricature of their lives. I debated long and hard about whether I could even tell this story in good faith and finally came down to this: the truth of the matter is that it is the truth. or at the very least, it is a thread in the common experience of women and children living in poverty here and all over the world.

I've been carrying around several things to share with you in my head for the past month and a half, never getting past the first few sentences of each because there always seems to be something else that needs doing. Where, where, where did the "winter" go?? March is full-on here, and with it the kind of heat that boils my water during the day (oh what I would have given for hot showers back in December...) and drenches my sheets at night.

Part of the whirlwind that has descended upon my life here in Bamako is a direct result of the amazing Mali--Paris vacation I had with my mom and step-dad at the end of January. I could not have asked for a more pleasant, relaxed, and paradoxically jam-packed fifteen days with the two of them. To be honest, it got me through. After the honeymoon of Bamako living wears off and all that's left is the endless dirt and dust, sharing that dust with two of the people you love most in the world is like a breath of fresh air. I guess, in the same way, this blog allows me to shake off a little of the dust of my life and share it with all of you.

So before I too excited and tell you about all the great times my parents and I had here, I need to say is that living in Bamako the way I (and hundreds of thousands of others) live is not fun, not really. After a few months, the high of being on a new adventure slides into the drudgery of a daily life so far removed from any semblance of my "comfort zone" that thoughts of it rarely even surface. The opportunity, then, to be with people whose only care is to know where I am allowed me to step outside my experience enough to appreciate being here all over again.

In the weeks before their arrival I had begun that downward slide in earnest. Work was stalled; friends were leaving Mali and me with an endless eight months to go; the happy blur of Seli Ba-Thanksgiving-Christmas-and-New Year's was over and gone, and so was all my chocolate. The frigid morning bucket baths, the pathetic light in my tin-roofed room, the fearless cockroaches, the hike to work, the chants of young children and catcalls of young men, the hack-inducing Bamako haze, the weekends of market-ing and saluer-ing and hand-washing clothes and rice and peanut sauce again...it was getting to be too much.

And then it got worse. I came down with the flu and everything went to shit.

While I was sleeping off my fever one Saturday morning, a neighbor gave birth -- in her room, by herself -- at only seven months. Sick with a jaw infection and too poor to fill the prescription given to her at the community clinic, she had subsisted for fifteen days on millet porridge. Later she explained to me that the inflammation had been so bad that, unable to swallow, the liquid had come back through her nose. Of course, I wish I had known that so I could have purchased her medicines and maybe prevented her miscarriage. But, unfortunately, there we were: a baby two-months premature, a weak mother who had given birth on a straw mattress in a dirty, sweltering room, a family that seemed disturbingly resigned to this tragic state of affairs, and me -- someone with the resources to do something.

So, of course, I promptly freaked out. Should I take her to the hospital? immediately? but what about the baby? How would we transport them? by moto? No way -- can she walk? Christ, I don't know. She seems okay, conscious, aware. What if she's hemorraging and I have no idea?

I searched for words I've never used in French, let alone Bambara, fumbling along as Ami translated. Mariatou, are you still bleeding? A lot? Does it hurt? A lot? And the baby?! Oh God, what do I look for, what should I ask? Is she feeding? How often? Do you know you if you are producing milk?

Had we been in the United States, the infant would have been whisked away to an intensive care ward where she would have been hooked up to IVs and placed in a sterile incubator to keep up her body temperature -- something she can't do herself. Being, instead, in an impoverished neighborhood of one of the world's poorest nations, the baby's risks of hypothermia or infection were astounding. I was terrified.

We need to keep her warm, I said (as if her mother didn't already know). Keep her against your skin. Can I take you to the hospital? We need to go to the hospital.

I consulted with my co-workers and called Hawa Gaku's son, a resident at a local clinic. "If it is not an emergency, try to get her to come in tomorrow morning," he said. "I will look at the mother and child then and write a referral for hospitalization if necessary." But. But. Isn't this an emergency??

She didn't want to go, she was afraid the doctor would be angry with her for not filling her prescription, for not making pre-natal visits, for being poor. Ami convinced her that we had to go, and the three of us walked the mile and half to the clinic the next day. We wrapped the baby against her chest under layers of sweaters, despite the 95°F heat. When we arrived, the doctor examined the mother and child. Mariatou was doing well, but the infant's temperature hovered at a hypothermic 92°F. He said hospitalization was necessary, but if the mother wan't sure that her family could bring her food during her stay then maybe it was best to try and care for the baby at home. My heart sank.

Prescriptions in hand, we went on our way.

Okay, I thought. We can make this work. Then I realized that it was me who was going to give this child the antibiotics. Oh oh oh...I have never ever ever felt less prepared for anything. I have never been more scared. The antibiotic oral suspension she was prescribed were supposed to be refrigerated after mixing (is that some sort of cruel joke?), and the directions said the vitamin drops should be diluted in 8 oz of milk or juice. 8 ounces? That's like a quarter of her weight in fluid. Should she even drink fluid that isn't breast milk? Shouldn't the fluid be warm? What the hell am I doing?? I don't want to play doctor anymore.

She took the antibiotic just fine as I slowly droppered it into her tiny mouth. When I started with the vitamin solution, however, my heart stopped. I droppered more than I meant to and she started to cough. She coughed with her whole body, and seized. I gave the mother a terrified look. Is she breathing? I watched her lungs, her diaphragm, praying they would move rhythmically again.

Mariatou took her from me, pulling on her toes and sucking the air from the top of her head. In my mind, I was screaming. THAT'S NOT GOING TO HELP. OH MY GOD I KILLED YOUR BABY. Your precious baby. Frantically, I put my mouth over hers, breathed slightly and but then stopped short --- I had absolutely no idea how much air her lungs could support. Oh god oh god oh god. Please. She coughed and seized for thirty seconds longer (or was it an hour?) and then started to breathe normally again.

Oh god. Oh god. Thank you.

No more medicine today, I said. I'll just make things worse. Mariatou assured me that it was okay, that she would be fine, that she'd keep the baby warm. I smiled weakly and shut myself in my room, feeling like I'd jumped off a building was just now picking myself up off the ground. What the hell was I thinking? I didn't want to be here anymore, it was just too much.

I wish I could pretend that the story ended well. I wish I could tell you that the rich white girl swooped in to save the day. I didn't. The baby didn't survive through the evening, and her family buried her that night without much ceremony. She was nameless, because babies are given their names on the seventh day -- but Mariatou said she had wanted to name her Laurel, after my mother. Break my heart.

I didn't see her cry, maybe she had expected it. She'd lost babies several times before and she had others she could barely feed.

Selfishly, though, I did. I cried because I don't like death, because I wanted to be the one to help. I cried because I couldn't stand myself, getting off on "living in Africa," romanticizing this place and my place here. I cried because I had held abject poverty in my hands and couldn't do a damn thing about it. I cried because this is someone's reality and here I am pretending to be a part of it.

I cried because I wanted my mom.
Thankfully, she was on her way.

5 comments:

  1. Wow Alex, I can't even imagine having to experience that. Thank god for your strength to see you through. Keep your head up love. I am more than positive you are doing an amazing job in Mali and are helping the people you encounter way more than you think. Stay safe. You'll be in my prayers.

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  2. Oh Alex, thank you for putting your experience into words. I am so moved by your thoughtful efforts. You are helping; every day and in ways you will never see directly. It is a roller coaster you will reflect forever. I hope to give you a big hug when we meet in the future. For now, I hope you are enjoying some chocolate from my grocery cart.
    Mary Beth Moore
    (Alex Ruby's mother)

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  3. I have nothing to say, but I want you to know I am listening, I am present.

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  4. I don't know what to say except thank you for posting; the power of the emotion is so clear in your words. My mother's heart breaks reading this - I know how it feels to have a child experiencing things you can't fathom and also how it feels to hold - and lose - a baby. God speed.

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  5. Thank you everyone for your kind, kind words. I am so grateful for the opportunity to share these experiences with you -- not just because it is important for others to know how lives are lived in difficult, tired corners of the world, but also because it helps me understand myself and my place in these moments. I appreciate you being here with me!

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