Fertile Ground

June 24th

I am back in Mozambique, working at our health project and adjusting from the life of a spoiled expat to a quickly overwhelmed NGO worker. Today I started out in Mbatwe, a small village of mud huts built near the airport in Beira. We have had an on-going health project in this community for three years. We have more than 1,000 families participating in our HIV, cholera and malaria programs. They are wrapped into other social development projects too. The idea is after four years, participants will have improved health, housing, job training, education and well-being. The theory is that you use these public health models in communities that are hungry for change. It takes a village, so the story goes. In this village, we see progress in some areas (less standing water, better wells, more kids in school, more people being tested and treated for HIV) and then we have days like today.
I walked with two of our health leaders to do house visits with some of our families who have been struggling with health issues. I made it to three huts before I thought I was either going to quit and immediately go back home, or just sit down and sob. In each of the first three homes there was a child at the edge of death from malnutrition. In each of these homes, the child also had other complications — TB, HIV, orphan status, etc. And in each of these homes, the child’s caretaker knew how to reach out for help, where the feeding centers are located, how to get the dying baby into the hands of a health official and yet did nothing. If anything, they were angry (and perhaps shamed) that we showed up today to ask a few questions about the status of their family’s health. They are voluntarily participating in our project. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be stopping by. Each of these women presented a lengthy list of daily challenges that kept the baby’s health from being a higher priority. By the end of the third conversation, I felt my neck turning red in a flush of anger. Enough. I couldn’t hear another excuse.
I couldn’t be culturally competent or kind or compassionate or understanding that life is seemingly values life differently, and one more child dying isn’t that big of a deal. It is a big deal. They are a big deal to me — this bleeding heart liberal still thinks perhaps I’ll do something to make this country’s health a touch better.
And so I grabbed the third woman (the grandmother) and peppered her with a slew of questions before I put her two-year-old on my hip (suffering from malnutrition and a worm disease) and asked her to take her one-year-old (malnourished, HIV-positive) and said we were going to the clinic this very moment. These kids weren’t dying on my watch. I can’t be there everyday to guide decisions but I was not — absolutely not — walking away from this family. With a child bouncing from hip to hip, I walked behind this grannie (who managed to walk much faster than I could with a cloth wrapped around her waist, plastic flip flops on her feet and the sick baby on her back) for several miles before we reached the clinic. I sat with her at the malnutrition clinic, kept the kids entertained and soothed with hard-boiled eggs, oranges and bananas I bought from a roadside stand, and tried my hardest to keep my cool. The grannie spoke very little Portuguese, a language I have very little understanding of myself. Needless to say, my Msena isn’t so great either. But with my insistence and a bit of money, we got those kids into see a doctor. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I know I didn’t solve any problem long-term by putting my cultural competency aside and demanding we care for these kids today, but I can’t help but home for some change. Maybe another woman in the village saw us marching out toward the clinic. Maybe the two-year-old will fight on and survive and become a great leader for Mozambique. Maybe.


Posted in
Africa, Journal, Public Health
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35 Responses

  1. Oh Kelly — my heart breaks with you!

  2. “a small village of mud huts built near the airport in Beira”

    Mud huts side by side with casual air travel. There are just so many things wrong with that picture.

  3. Thank you for doing your best, whatever that is in the moment. It sounds so incredibly difficult and heartbreaking and overwhelming. I can’t imagine.

  4. All that occurs to me is the old story about the kid tossing shellfish back into the ocean.

    I don’t have any great insights. I think that situations like this are driven by (at least) two overlapping sets of factors — the visible ones, and the psychological ones. The visible ones are the political environment, the economic environment (both macro and micro), the physical environment. Problems are both adhoc and systemic. The psychological ones are the attitude that comes from the visible ones, and more — the feeling that nothing can be done, that it doesn’t matter, that anything improved today will be lost tomorrow — so whats the point, why try, its effort for naught. To be successful, you have to combat both sets of factors. Combating either is never less than difficult and draining. Combined, it can be and usually is an insuperable obstacle. Not always.

  5. Rock on amiga! Da um beijo a essa terra por mim.

  6. Oh Kelli, what a heart-breaking day. But you should be so proud of yourself. Maybe it’s not what you ‘should’ have done- I don’t know… I thankfully, have no experience of this alien, terrifying world. But you surely did the ‘right’ thing, in that you followed your (good, good) heart.

  7. Kel…
    I wish I was there to hug you and take turns carrying kids w/ you. I can’t imagine how that doesn’t break your spirit, after all the good you and your organization have tried to do there….
    Love you. Miss you.

  8. That is so sad to hear. What a heartbreaking thing to see. You are such a great inspiration to me. Keep on Kelli! You ROCK!

  9. Thank you for doing what you do. I too wish that I could walk by your side and help carry children. My thoughts are with you.

  10. Dear Kelli,
    Thank you for taking care of those children and for all that you do. You are so incredibly brave. I hope your actions and the fact that you cared so much touches that family! My prayers are with you as you continue your journey.

  11. Wow. I can’t imagine thinking other things were more important than my children. You are so brave.

  12. Wow, what a day. Hang in there. You are making a difference.

  13. Oh, my. I think I agree with the above commenter Bill in that these people think it is “all for naught”. I am so glad you lent some of your energy and will to the situation to get those kids to a doctor…I hope some of their suffering is relieved.

  14. one child at a time, one day at a time, one meal at a time – they all have an impact. Bravo for trying!

  15. What’s that saying no act of kindness is ever wasted…or the other one about the ripple effect…

    I saw the most inspiring 60 minutes this week about Plumpy Nut and it’s ability to help starving children make it past their second birthday and thus survive on to adulthood. Amazing! It was a Drs w/o Borders program and it was so filled with hope and a relatively simple attack for a enormously complicated problem.

    Keep on keep’n on!

  16. Wow, that must have been so hard to deal with! But just know, Kelli, that you definitely made a difference in those kids lives today. Be proud of the person that you are and keep up the good work! 🙂 The world needs more people like you!

  17. Thank you thank you thank you for doing it. It sometimes seems like what we do here makes so little difference, even for that one, but keep doing it anyway!

    And I too am sick of the low value placed on life here and loved seeing your post.

  18. As I read your post I keep thinking about how Jesus got ticked at the Pharisees for being a bunch of hyprocites and threw all their money at them. Getting mad at the injustice is what it takes to make change. You are making a difference. The children and you are in my prayers. Thanks for sharing Kelli.

  19. You know, in my own country (not a third world one) many years ago, where so many babies were born and where there were so little to feed all, a life lost was not that big deal. I think that when you’re so poor, without hope, when you see that it seems a no-future situation, losing a child and knowing next year a new one will be there, it’s not a big deal. Sad, but true.
    But you also know that every action has an impact, so keep on trying to make a difference. My prayers are with you and with the people down there.

  20. Your anger and action are blessings. What can I do to help?

  21. Reading this makes my heart cry. I don’t understand why the health of children isn’t taken more seriously. I think that you are doing wonderful work and I pray that your presence will make a huge long lasting difference in Mozambique.

  22. Belkys Bracho June 25, 2008

    Kelli is so sad to know about your heartbreaking moment with that community but keep on because you are a great inspiration to me and others. Just to cheer you up let me tell you that here in Maracaibo, Venezuela a group of students are working in a project based on your T-shirt for the peace idea and they called Put on a T-shirt to one indigenous child (Ponle una franela a un niño indigena). Thanks for your inspiring work.

  23. Apathy is such an enemy. Thank God you care so much!

    “I will not refuse to do the something I can do.” – Helen Keller


  24. Charly June 25, 2008

    Such a caring heart. I admire all that you do! Take care…

  25. Africa is so hard. Keep up your amazing and inspiring work. With that single action you may have impacted all of our lives – while helping a few children may seem like the smallest of victories, you might’ve just helped the kid that’s going to grow up and save the world. Take care, you will make a difference — you already have.

  26. Rebecca June 25, 2008

    I love you. You made me cry at work. I don’t know how you do it my friend of friends. I can just see you scooping up that child and doing what you could becuase if I could, I would be standing next to you, holding one of the children from hut 1 or 2.

  27. Larissa Stretton June 25, 2008

    Bless you Kelli.

    You made a difference that day, if no other, at least that one. You took what you had and made it work, at least for those children on that day. What a wonderful human being you are. You care and it showed.

  28. Good for you standing up for those babies. My heart breaks for them!!

  29. You go Kelli. Be true to you. Way to go. You’re a hero on so many levels.

  30. Thank you for going Kelli. We all need to help how we can.

  31. Thank you for doing that, Kelli.

  32. I just hopped over for Mozi Esme and am so glad that I did. Your story touched me in so many ways. Thank you for sharing it. It’s amazing to think about how many lives you just effected in one short (or maybe long) day.

  33. Wow! You do some tough work. Sad to hear. Keep up your spirts and continue pressing forward,

  34. It can be overwhelming but we are taught to stop for the one, to that one you are His hands and feet, his compassion and love in action.
    My motto… just show and be available and God will do amazing thins through you.