On Thanksgiving Day, while us Americans, the Brits and our Belgian doctor were celebrating Thanksgiving Day Tanzanian style, the first cases of cholera began to appear in our village. The hospital is filling and we have already lost at least one child (not one of our students). This is an extremely serious and contagious disease, and there will probably be more deaths. The government is sending a medical team today who will set up an isolation camp at the edge of the village on the abandoned airstrip. Today, three days after the first cases presented, there are 31 confirmed cases. Our doctors think it’s possible we’re on the cusp of a serious outbreak.
My perspective on what it means to be thankful, or mindful, has modulated a bit. I’m sitting here wondering if any of our kids have been admitted today. I can feel the sting of tears just thinking about it. I’m drinking clean, filtered water, have a flush toilet and soap to wash my hands; bare basics I never thought twice about back home. I never had to worry that water from the tap was so unfit to give to my children that it could kill them. I didn’t have to haul the day’s water up from the river in a bucket on my head, or carry a 60 lb. bundle of firewood just to boil that
water or to cook. I never had to worry about where my children were going to get their next meal, or whether or not they’d be playing near (or in) where someone had just relieved themself. I never had to boil the milk I gave them in case it contained tuberculosis, or watch them get bloated worm bellies. I never had to worry that their anemic little bodies couldn’t fight off malaria, or that it would develop into cerebral malaria. Hell, the most serious disease I had to worry about them getting was chicken pox. Back then, if a neighbor kid had it you’d just send your kids over to play so they’d catch it and get it over with.
So, this holiday season I am both mindful and thankful that I’ve been given the privilege to observe and take part in someone else’s very different reality. I am thankful that my education allows me to understand that the tents at the edge of the village are where you want to go, not avoid, if you’re sick. I am thankful for vaccinations and quality medical care; again, something I’ve always taken for granted. I am thankful I can afford toilet paper so I don’t have to use my left hand.
But I am mostly thankful that this alternate reality now has a face. Indeed, it has many faces. It is Mariam and Maria that carry the daily water to school, it is the other Maria who empties the buckets from the school latrines. It is the dirty, dusty, smelly little village kids that should
be in school but aren’t. It is the faces of all 136 of our students who run up to gives hugs whether we’re in school or just around the village. It is the boys that bring the cows and goats home and the girls that carry the water. It is the village women who try to teach me to speak Kiswahili and the children from Mgugu, the local government school, that say hi and now call me by name. It is the mentally disabled boy who drools and can’t speak but is full of love, and Bestie the mentally disabled man who “herds” his 2 pet goats. It’s the little 2 year old that yells, “Hi!” every morning from inside his house as I walk to school. It is the lady that sells us eggs, Stan the Taylor who makes our clothes, the young Maasai mother in the maternity ward who’s new son weighs only 1 kilo. It is Jackie at the
duka (store) who wants to be a mining engineer, Joyce at Sunrise Café who dances with me on occasion, Asefiwe the choir director’s young daughter who tries to teach me song lyrics. It is our student Hasan’s bibi (grandmother) who washes our clothes, and Frida who begged to clean our house once a week because she is a single mom and needs to feed her 5 children and sick mother. It is Ruth, Isaac and Mapenzi the local Hands4Africa staff who want better for their children. It is the men,
women and children at the hospital waiting their turn to be seen. It is the Maasai women of Ifunde who make it a point to say hello when they see me on their forays to Berega for Monday Market. It’s the Laughing Lady we hear every night from across the gully, and the friendly laughter of the women in the village when they hear me butcher their beautiful language as I’m trying to learn it.
This reality, the reality of poverty and disease, is the face of everyone I meet each and every day.
All of these people have changed my perspective on my reality; of privilege I grew up with and never questioned. I don’t feel guilty about how I was raised or how I raised my children. Every parent wants to provide their family with the best they possibly can – there’s no shame in that. It’s just that I didn’t deserve the circumstances of my birth any more than the people born here deserved theirs. It’s just what happened. But because I’m living here, if for only a short while, my reality and my good fortune of being born into privilege, is now inseparable from the reality of the people who live in Berega.
So, on this 1st day of Advent I will, as usual, enter my annual season of reflection and expectation. As I do so this year in the face of cholera, I am mindful that the people of Berega and the facet of life that is theirs, are now and forever will be a part of who I am, and who I am becoming.