December 14, 2007

What's Inside

We have all been taught that we are not to judge a book by its cover. Martin Luther King Jr. took this a step farther and said people shouldn’t be judged by the colour of their skin but the “content of their character.” The general idea is that what is inside is much more important than what greets us when we first see something.

I have to remind myself of this often in Mthatha because it can be easy to think that people are doing all right here. An initial glance shows them walking around fairly well-dressed, laughing and smiling, and – aside from the colour of their skin and the language they speak – generally not all that different than what I might expect to see on a similar city street in North America. But I’ve come to realize there are at least two things are different.

The first is pain. I’ll never be able to truly tell just how much pain some people are in but given how much physical exertion they subject themselves to – particularly the women – it must be enormous. Have you ever carried 50 pounds of water on your head? I can barely manage 20 without the pain forcing me to stop. Now try 50, countless times a day, over a much greater distance than I can manage. Without facilities I take for granted, like running water, heat, sewer, and so on, life becomes much more arduous. Add it all up over a lifetime of hard labour just to survive, throw in a few injuries that never healed properly because there just wasn’t the time to let them, and it makes for a difficult existence. One of my Xhosa phrases is “kubuhlungu pi?”, roughly “where are you in pain?”, and patients always indicate broad swathes of their body when I ask. One of most-asked-for medications at the clinic is methyl silyiciate ointment. I’ve never used it but our patients swear by its evergreen-scented healing properties.

The other is hunger. There’s no guarantee of three meals a day here and often what passes for a meal is a bag of chips or something equally nutritionally insufficient. Even though I can’t see it, hunger is a constant in the lives of the people in Itipini. I used to bring some food with me to Itipini to tide me through lunchtime but I stopped doing that because I’d never eat it since I felt awkward eating in front of children who just looked at me with longing eyes. Once, some children saw a bag of bananas in my car and relentlessly asked for them until I handed them out. Their intensity of their demand, underlain by a certain desperation, surprised me because it hadn’t occurred to me they might be hungry. To be clear, I haven’t seen any distended bellies and the people in Itipini aren’t on the brink of starvation. But they certainly aren’t going to bed with the contented and full feeling I routinely do.

I can share some aspects of the Itipini life – the hordes of flies, the unrelenting heat, the smell, the pigs and dogs that run around everywhere, the lack of electricity and running water – but not all. On the deeper, more fundamental questions, I can only guess.