Literature - Guest Contributions

Pemba Hospital

by David Fair


December 24, 2006

A rough hand gently brushed my shoulder accompanied by a weak-winded “eh! Eh!”  As my tired eyes opened they focused on an African woman pointing at me and motioning toward the door just above my head.  I glanced down at the girl lying on my chest.  She was fast asleep.  Throughout this whole ordeal she had been incredibly peaceful and patient, almost never crying even though several hours of waiting, three taxi rides, taunting by village kids, and poking and prodding by her mother had been more than enough to provoke any four year old. 

 Her tight thin braids pushed into my chest, and a small puddle of drool had appeared on my shirt just under her lightly open mouth.  As my vision quickly toured the room I saw the scene had changed little, with the exception of the mother, who clearly felt that the two and a half seconds it took me to wake up was eternally too long – this I could see by her continual poking and motioning me toward the door. 

 With great care and gentleness I began to lift the girl and sit up.  She whimpered out loud as her sleep was disturbed just as I whimpered internally as my sweaty back peeled up from the hard flat bench.  The slats in the bench were fairly far apart so I could feel their edges digging into my back.  It was better lying down than sitting, I discerned, and did not complain.   

By now it was quite dark outside, and I had no clue what time it was, but at least I knew where I was going, since the mother continued to point toward the door.  I hoisted the girl up and she promptly rested her head on my shoulder and wrapped her tiny arms around my neck, still whimpering.  The room we entered was small and crowded, so I had to weave my way through the crowd past a blue curtain, all the while taking great care to protect the girl’s leg from hitting anyone or anything. 

 A stern-looking man in a dark blue hospital-looking shirt motioned for me to sit down on a rickety chair next to one of two desks behind the blue curtain.  He sat behind one of them and the other was empty.  Using the clues at hand I guessed that the second empty desk was part of the reason for the long wait to see him.  Apparently I didn’t look American enough or maybe I looked black enough that spoke directly to me in either Portuguese or Makua, the local tribal language, rather than speaking to the obvious mother of the girl who was standing a mere three inches to my left with her other child slung in a piece of cloth on her back. 

 My blank response didn’t clue him in as quickly as I had hoped, so I motioned to the mother, and he got the point.  Their conversation was easy enough to follow even though I had no clue about whatever language they were speaking.  She pointed at her daughter’s badly swollen left knee and made a motion demonstrating two things hitting each other, one of them obviously being the girl’s knee.  He reached out and touched her leg with his hand.  She instantly responded with a very clear indication that he should never ever do that again.  He nodded, said some stuff which apparently was Portuguese, because it included the word “fotografia”, wrote some words on a small piece of paper and began to gesture and point directions for us to go somewhere. 

 He led us through the crowded room, out a door and down some stairs outside in to a courtyard where I could see that this hospital was pretty large, like a small campus with lots of buildings scattered on the property.  Presently, he pointed toward a building about 200 yards away down a narrow road and down the hill a little way and then he turned and left us.  When we got there I was impressed by the dismal nature of the building.  It couldn’t have been much more dismal if it was in a creepy movie.  It had a big iron gate over the door, there were no windows, and the lights were yellowish with cobwebs floating around them like a halo.  Above the iron gate was an old dirty sign on which the word “Radiologia” was printed in plain black letters that were chipping off with age.  The gate was locked of course, so we sat down on yet another hard wooden bench and waited. 

 Because the girl didn’t like sitting upright anymore, I lay down on the bench and gently placed her on my chest again.  Obviously comfortable with me, she snuggled right in.  This position was easier for me too, since I had been holding her for probably the past seven hours with very little break and my butt really hurt.  Either they don’t believe in comfortable places to sit in Mozambique or they simply don’t have the money to make them here.  While waiting, my mind wandered back to the events of the day.  At around noon I had been just about to leave the church service at the Arco-Iris Ministry Orphanage in Pemba, Mozambique, where I was serving along with 20 other people from my church.  This woman’s mother had called me over to pray for her daughter’s hurt leg.  To make a very long story very short, I ended up bringing her to the Pemba hospital for treatment.  Because it was the day before Christmas, the Arco-Iris staff were extremely busy, so I was not sent with a translator, which made things even more adventurous.  One of my team members, Noah, had come with me the first trip.  He speaks some Portuguese, but it is Brazilian and not Mozambique Portuguese.  Among other things, the day’s excitement included missing birth papers, an orphan with malaria, a big argument with a taxi driver, getting separated from Noah, a woman vomiting on the floor at the hospital, and the mother’s other child peeing on my leg.  And I had not even been in Pemba for two full days. 

 Just before falling asleep again, a man came and opened the gate.  The inside was a fairly unimpressive, but functional x-ray lab room, and again I was motioned to sit in a rickety chair.  This guy also thought I was black and again I motioned him to talk to the child’s mother, who silently handed him the paper given to us.  A few typical sentences and hand motions later and I was carrying the girl to the x-ray table. 

 With all the tenderness of a professional wrestler he and the mother stretched the girl’s leg out flat on the film cartridge.  She really didn’t like that, and I found myself in the  position of having to hold a kicking screaming crying 4-year old girl still enough for an x-ray.  As I looked into her eyes, they poured out fear and pain and hurt and anger at me and the doctor and her mother for putting her in so much pain.  Tears streamed down my face along with those that ran down hers, but I held her firmly and gently spoke peace and tenderness into her ear.  I am not even her father and my heart just collapsed in her pain.  I thought about how much our Father God loves us and how it must feel for Him when He has to hold us down on the x-ray table.  Forty or so hellish seconds later the x-rays were done and I picked her up and continued to comfort her and gently love her as she continued crying.  Meanwhile her mom was poking her and telling her to stop crying in the most compassionless voice I’ve ever heard come out of a mother. 

 A few minutes of lying on the bench in front of the radiology dungeon and the girl had calmed down.  A few more after that and the man returned with the films and we were on our way back to the crowded room. 

 The mother led us right back to the desk with the blue-shirt guy and we barged in on the patient he was talking to and she plopped the films down in front of him.  He picked them up and examined them.  This time he spoke directly to the mother, motioning for us to go around the corner into another room.  He wrote some more stuff on the small piece of paper and sent us out.  Again I gingerly carried the girl through the blue curtain and the crowd, then around the corner into what was obviously the treatment area.  More like a hallway with a few beds separated by movable cloth screens in it. 

 In the first bed on the right was the woman who had vomited on the floor while we were in the waiting room.  She didn’t look so good.  The next bed had the guy that was driven into the waiting room on the bed of a truck.  Literally.  I was sitting there with the girl on my lap and this truck backed into the waiting room right in front of me.  A bunch of guys helped this man out of the truck and onto a gurney that the doctors brought.  The third bed had a very sick looking man with some strange bumps on his chest.  His face was sunken in and his yellowing eyes poured out hopelessness.  The passage space was only a couple feet wide and there were people all over the place.  I couldn’t tell which people were doctors and which weren’t, because the doctors were wearing common clothing, and they were not any cleaner than the patients.  The smell of sickness and uncleanness saturated the hot and humid air.  The hospital had no doors (remember that a truck pulled up into the waiting room?) and no air conditioning, so people here were just as hot and sweaty as those outside. 

 After plenty of confusion, blank stares, hand gestures, and people-dodging, we were eventually shuffled into a room across from the man with bumps on his chest.  There I was seated on yet another extremely uncomfortable hard rickety chair, and we waited some more.  The woman sat on the floor, loosed the cloth that held her younger son on her back, and sat him on her lap.  We waited in silence.  Nothing new here; I didn’t speak Portuguese and she didn’t speak English.  We had nothing to say to each other.  About fifteen minutes later Noah and one of the orphanage staff members came into the room.  I had been gone for like five hours and they came back to get me.  By this time I had been holding this child for about nine hours, and my butt was really  hurting. 

 They brought water, which was nice.  I gulped down about half a liter and gave the rest to the mother and the children, who were also pretty parched.  At long last a doctor came in.  He was dressed in a white and blue soccer jersey and some used-to-be white pants. When he took the girl off my lap and put her on an exam table, I was a little proud because she obviously preferred my lap to this guy.  In the last nine hours I had really built up a deep affection for this little girl.  The three of us white people took this as an opportunity to leave the room.  Noah and I stayed in the passageway of sick people and the staff member, Betty, went out to check on her car.  Apparently the soccer doctor wasn’t very gentle with the girl either because we could hear her screaming and crying. 

 Eventually Noah and I went back to the waiting room, which was still fairly crowded for 10:00 at night.  Exhausted, sweaty, and still reeling from all the things which had happened in the past three days, I was glad to have someone with whom I could speak English.  We chatted about his girlfriend and his desire to live in Brazil and to work with poor people there.  We talked about what we had seen in the hospital, and we talked about the cheesy music that was pouring out of the TV set above our heads.  Feeling relieved somewhat, I was in much higher spirits when the mother came out and had me go carry her daughter out of the treatment room. 

 I wound my way back through the blue curtain and past the sick people into the room where the girl was.  She was seated on a table with a plaster cast from her foot all the way up her leg.  Her skirt was raised and I could see that not only was she not wearing underwear (they probably didn’t have money for underwear) but the doctor had made the cast all the way up to her crotch, and there were even pieces of plaster on her vagina.  I looked in her eyes and just wanted to cry for the way she had been treated today.  Her eyes were tired and wounded and they pulled everything inside of me out in compassion.  She lifted her arms for me to pick her up and I carefully lifted her, making sure to support the cast so it wouldn’t chafe her.  While I held her in the air, Noah pulled her skirt down to cover her and I drew her in to my chest.  Again she clutched my neck and whimpered as she rested her head on my shoulder.  Throughout this whole day she didn’t speak a word.  I didn’t even know her name.  But I loved her. 

 I gave her mother money to pay for the medical treatment, and we piled into the back of Betty’s truck.  The ride back to the orphanage was short and silent.  There was no way that I could possibly express what had happened in and around me this day.  I knew that I had been changed forever by this trip, and that the coming days would continue to challenge and grow me in ways I could not even imagine.   

In addition to travel, I have a true passion for writing. Occassionally I will write about my experiences, art, or events with a bit of poetry thrown into the mix. I encourage you to share your writing with me as well. Anything you'd like to share, I will post under the Guests section.




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