January 11, 2009

Enough Dead Babies

I was at the nearby government clinic on Thursday, helping a new HIV patient navigate the anti-retroviral prep system. A nurse in the maternity section called me over. “There’s a young woman who gave birth to a stillborn baby this morning. She’s all by herself and we haven’t been able to get in touch with any family members to decide what to do with the corpse. But she says she lives in Itipini. Can you help us?” Leaving aside for the moment the tragedy of a teenage girl giving birth to a stillborn baby all by herself in an impersonal ward with no privacy at all, I agreed.

I didn’t recognize the young woman but I immediately recognized her last name because it turns out she is the niece of a woman about my age, named Nolizwe, whom I know very well. She is so well-known because she has been equal parts protagonist and antagonist in my time here. She can be a talented and helpful person but most of the time I find myself getting angry at her for drinking her life away and ignoring her children. The young woman who had just given birth said she had no other family besides Nolizwe around. (None of us thought to ask where the father was. The idea of a teenage father taking responsibility for his child is so unusual here as to not even merit consideration.)

I located Nolizwe in Itipini and told her her niece had just given birth and Nolizwe had to go to the clinic to help out. Nolizwe protested, in Xhosa: “I don’t have any clothes. I don’t have a blanket,” all necessary items for taking a baby out of the maternity section. It was then I realized I had forgotten an important detail. In Xhosa I said, “Nolizwe, the baby” - and then paused not sure of what I was doing and then decided to plough ahead anyway - “is dead.” I used the Xhosa euphemism that would translate better as “pass away” but it didn’t do much to cover up the shock of the news. Nolizwe sat down and started crying. “How did I end up in charge of this situation?” I thought to myself. “And what do I do know?”

Eventually, Nolizwe - aided not at all by my limited efforts to soothe her in Xhosa - stopped crying, got in the car, and came with me back to the other clinic. There, she decided we needed to find her brother who could provide some expert male advice. We drove to find him and found him sitting under a tree with about eight other guys, all of them passing around beer bottles. He wanted no part of the situation and told Nolizwe to sort it out herself. I might have caught more of that conversation but I was accosted by one of the drunks, who insisted I give him a job cutting the grass in Itipini (what grass? it’s a dump!) and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Our options boiled down to calling a funeral home to pick up the corpse (and figuring out a way to pay for that another time) or giving the corpse to the family for a burial on their own. I’ll spare you all the details but we opted for the first choice. By this point, the workday was long over and I left Nolizwe and her niece to sort out the situation, knowing that at some point they’d come asking for money for the funeral and we’d likely help them.

This situation, while tragic through and through, should be the kind that made me feel good about my role here - being able to talk about a sensitive subject with some facility in another language, being able to help a family in a difficult time, and so forth. But it left me with nothing but bad feelings. While describing the situation to Jenny at the end of it all, I called the dead baby a “thing,” which it assuredly is/was not. I couldn’t help but be suspicious of Nolizwe’s tears throughout because she has played me so many times in the past I could only imagine her scheming through the tears to use the situation to her advantage; I didn’t want to be “too generous” with her. I kept wondering how this situation had become “my problem” when the baby wasn’t even born in Itipini (unlike a past stillbirth) and the mother hadn’t been to our clinic in four years. I wondered if the brother would have been more helpful if he hadn’t seen Nolizwe in the company of a white guy, who was chauffeuring her around.

Maybe I would have felt better about everything if it hadn’t been a face-meltingly hot day and I hadn’t been dealing with a handful of other challenges simultaneously - sorting out the HIV patient and another really sick guy, taking a young girl to the hospital to prepare for open-heart surgery, figuring out which students were serious about going to high school next year and needed our support, deciding with Mkuseli how to register elementary students for school, and in the midst of all this having yet another run-in with the Mthatha traffic control.

Our motivation can be so simple - help others. But when that motivation is mediated through all the exigencies of the real world, the end result never seems to be quite what we imagined.

And I’ve really had enough of dead babies.