One of our congregants, Catherine, recently returned from a trip to Uganda for her capstone project for her Masters of Public Health. The following are excerpts from emails sent while in country.
Most of my days have been spent in the district hospital in Jinja, approximately 30 minutes south of here as the car drives, but closer to an hour as the mutatu jolts, considering time needed to fill the taxi, and extra stops along the way. Jinja is just as beautiful as I remember, and the lake and river still speak of great mystery and ancient stories. I will never get over the Nile.
The hospital is a sprawling compound with big white tents pitched at intervals on the grass in between operating theatres and wards, homes for women and their caretakers while they wait the surgery to reverse their fistula and their lives. Each tent is stamped in big letters: USAID From the American people. I walk past them every day and wonder: do the American people know where these tents are scattered all across the world? Do I know? I sit in the shade of the tents with Loy and Evelyn, our fistula program coordinators, and a stream of women who wash up by my chair, deposit their stories into my scribbled notes, and drift away, but not too far, to listen to the next woman’s grief. I wouldn’t expect someone to be so forward about such a horrifying injury, and perhaps an America wouldn’t be, but the women let their words spill all over my paper. The notes jotted on the surveys are all different, and all the same: “labor for 4 days,” “baby born alive, died after two days,” “living with parents, husband sent her away,” “stigmatized,” “self-isolation,” “life would have been better if at least the baby had lived, someone to love her,” “tried to commit suicide, but found and stopped.” I know that this is not where the story ends, because Loy and Evelyn tell me so.
“Even me, I was so sad. I wanted to die. I cried every day.”
“But you are dry now. Everything is better?”
“Yes, I am dry now. No more leaking, and no more crying.”
Even still, the little clipped stories stare horrified at me from my dusty papers as I code the surveys each night.
It amazes me that these women can look me in the face, can sit and tell of such sorrow, can make a journey filled with hope and fear, and then reclaim their lives from the wreck they became. “Me, when I am healed I want to have children,” “I want to open a stall to sell tomatoes,” “I want to learn tailoring,” “I want to go back to school.” This last was from a bright, feisty 17 year-old, living with fistula for 5 years.
“She fell out of a mango tree.”
“She fell out of a mango tree and got a fistula from that? When she was 12? Loy, madam, do you really believe that?”
“That is what she says.”
But you can’t pry, and whatever horrific violence has been done to that child will stay with her until she finds her voice and tells her story. She grins at me and walks back to her mat under the tent and I pray for school uniforms and classrooms full of books.
I do not know what to do with all these stories. The data goes, obediently enough, from my papers to my computer, but the faces, the stories, the press of a hand in mine stay, imprinting themselves more deeply than the Nile could ever cut through my memory. St. Veronica, bleeding, fingers brushing a tassel, lurks in the corners of my vision everywhere I turn. The adhan rolls over our backyard every morning, words pleading, threatening, promising: “hasten to prayer, hasten to salvation, prayer is better than sleep.” Exhausted I agree, stagger out of bed, and join my Gloria to the chant, in search of the one Word that can bring redemption and closure to so many fractured, unfinished stories.
After several days of coding and pouring over notes, I returned to the big white tents. They still stand on the hospital grounds, daubed rust red from the earth and ashy from cooking fires, but empty, echoing like a tomb. When I stepped inside the biggest, all I saw was a sleeping mat and a few pieces of kitenge fabric, remnants of someone’s bed. The silence in that tent was full of hope and confusion; where was everyone? At the same time I understood, and didn’t, that the women had been sorted and scattered to wards across the hospital recovering from, undergoing, awaiting their surgeries. They were all caught between the now and not yet of waiting to see whether the surgery would hold, whether they would return home whole and healed. Through the rails of the veranda of the nearest ward I saw the bright, smiling 17-year-old. I had a thousand questions for her, but not the vocabulary for them. She waved at me, and I prayed again for her teacher.
The second half of my project consisted in calling the women who had gone through UVP’s reintegration program to test my follow up survey. Seated on a broad wooden bench next to the empty, flapping tent we called woman after woman, Loy chatting happily with them while I scribbled notes furiously. It was obvious that Loy loved translating these stories.
“She says she is so happy to be sleeping in a dry bed.”
“She has so many new friends, and no one isolates her anymore.”
“She is very valued in her family and community.”
“She was elected women’s chairperson in her community.”
At the last one, Loy burst out laughing until she cried.
“She says, ‘since I survived fistula, I don’t think I will die.’”
“She survived fistula, so nothing can kill her?”
“Yes, nothing can kill her, she will live forever.”
I glanced back through the bars of the veranda at the 17-year-old, and it occurred to me that I don’t remember her name. In the years to come, when the memories roll over me, what will I call her? Not “the 17-year-old.” Not “that one fistula patient.” I hoped that she would forgive me, and in the quiet of my mind I named her Anastasia, and wished with all my heart that it would be true of her.
( If you are not familiar with obstetric fistula, I recommend this video: )