December 14, 2007

“What do you do?”

When I tell people here I work in a clinic, they often ask, “Oh, what do you do?” This question frustrates me to no end as my job is wide-ranging and varied, depending on the day and the needs of the people in Itipini. On any given day, I can be found bandaging wounds, dispensing TB medications, finding medical records, chit-chatting with the ladies in the kitchen, playing my guitar, fixing broken equipment, sorting books for the library, letting myself be used as a jungle gym, and starting water fights with anyone who is around. It’s hard to squeeze all that into a ten-second response, which, let’s be honest, is all you ever want when you ask someone what they do.

This aggravating question also totally neglects the more important part of my work, namely who I am, not what I do. But, not wanting to explain the doing-being distinction and knowing that if I answer honestly and say I play “Johnny B. Goode” for pre-school children the questioner will likely dismiss my work, I often reply with a vague, “Oh, this and that” or a joke, “Well, I’ve been playing a lot of ping-pong lately.” (Our after-school program has a ping-pong table I sometimes use in a quiet moment.)

One thing I actually do “do” is give patients rides to the hospital or a more advanced clinic. Transportation, I am learning, is a crucial and neglected part of health-care infrastructure. Car ownership is much more rare in the developing world than I am used to and virtually everyone relies on mini-bus taxis to get around. But it’s a minimum 10-minute walk to the nearest taxi rank from Itipini if you’re healthy and more if you’re not. If you’re weak and emaciated because you’ve got HIV or you’re sore and swollen because life in Itipini takes a dramatic physical toll on its inhabitants, you might not be able to make it to the advanced care you need. So that’s where I step in, driving patients where they need to go. Some of these cases are acute – like Fumanekile’s ride a few weeks back – but many are patients in generally poor but stable health.

The shortest distance I have to drive is 10 minutes but I often count on at least 20 minutes in the car with the patient, given the horrendous mid-day traffic in Mthatha and the distance Itipini is from the hospitals. That is a lot of time to be with someone. The trouble is, I never know what to say – everything from “sure is hot today” to “so, how’s it feel to have HIV?” seems inadequate and inappropriate. Even if I did know what to say, I’d barely be able to say it in Xhosa. As a result we ride in silence. At first, I found these car rides awkward but now they are just routine. The patients are universally grateful for the ride and genuinely so, so I take that as a good sign and resolve to re-commit myself to learning Xhosa even faster so someday I can say something.

I guess I could say to my questioners, “I give people rides to the hospital” but I don’t think that would satisfy anyone. Maybe it’s always that way with the ministry of presence.


Harry Gunkel said...

Look at the face of the boy on your shoulders in the photo above, Jesse. That's what you do. Keep doing it.