December 5, 2007


We have an HIV/TB patient who is dying and can now barely muster the energy to get out of bed. He weighs 36kg and I can just about fit my thumb and forefinger around his upper thigh, it is so thin. The other day he showed me the washcloth he has been using to cough into. It was soaked with mucous and assorted other body fluids. I visit him in his shack to try to convince him to get out of bed and let me take him to a clinic. He speaks no English and I barely any Xhosa (though I’ve now got my first four-word phrase down – “kufuneka uyahambe iklinikini nomhlange” – “you must come to the clinic today”) so he lies in bed and talks past me and I stand there and talk past him. (He, incidentally, is the father of one of my “favourite” pre-school children.)

What strikes me about this situation is just how perfectly normal I find it. If you had told me a year ago that I would be standing in a shantytown in South Africa, talking in Xhosa to a HIV patient, I would never have believed you. Now it’s just my job and I’ve adjusted to the reality of it. What’s more, I don’t find his situation or suffering particularly noteworthy or shocking (though when I first saw his legs I was shaken). There are more people like him in Itipini and many more in South Africa.

It is amazing how quickly I am able to adjust to some of the realities of life in Itipini. My threshold for the shocking and amazing has definitely been altered and situations I used to find shocking or outrageous have now been reduced to the merely normal or mildly noteworthy. I could list several examples but here are just a few:

--The children who get in fights and start crying, all without any adult supervision or intervention. In general, the lack of adult supervision should be more shocking to me than it is.
-The drunk man who decided to go swimming in the Mthatha River that flows past Itipini and drowned. The police haven’t come to collect the body because they don’t put much priority on Itipini and no one else will go get it so the corpse is still out there somewhere. I’d rather not know where.
-The HIV-positive mother who brings in an obviously suffering baby with oral thrush and skin lesions. I take them both to the hospital, knowing that the baby will likely die soon. That thought no longer leads automatically to outrage.

What I don’t want to do is lose my sense of frustration, outrage, horror, etc. at the reality of the way our world works. But the more I am exposed to it, the more it becomes easy to dismiss as part of “the way things work.” And to dismiss the awful reality in this way is the easy way out. It’s the way of disillusionment, cynicism and, ultimately, despair. I’d like to not end up there but it’s hard work to be outraged so frequently.


Young Nomeite said...

Wow. Jesse Dispite All that goes on around you and by you, i am really suprised at how much you have adaped to mthatha. And as always, I really miss you.

-Your bathtub race captain