Wednesday, June 19, 2013

One Death Too Many

            As I type this, I feel lightheaded from all the emotions swimming through my head because of the terrible events that happened in my community this week. Over a week ago, one of my coworkers was brutally beaten by a group of men, and he died earlier this week from head wounds. It was shocking to everyone who knew him: Phillippe was 54 years old, all of 5 foot 2 inches, maybe 120 pounds. He was the janitor and cared for the animals at my health center, and he was such a kindhearted man. He left behind 10 children. We are all still reeling from his death in my village, and no one has been held responsible for killing him. It was so sudden and shocking: one day, he was joking around with me and asking me how the soymilk cooperative was going; the next day he was in a coma in the hospital. It just seems so utterly senseless. I miss his smile--full of chipped teeth but warm and cheerful—every day I walk into the health center.

Rest in Peace, Phillippe
            And then today, I was making soymilk with the women in the cooperative outside the health center as usual. I went into our nutrition office to ask Sr. Agnes a question, and was confronted by one of the most difficult situations in my Peace Corps service. A tall, thin woman, with a few wisps of white hair slipping out of the colorful scarf covering her head, sat on a wooden chair and rocked a tiny baby in her arms. A dingy towel that smelled heavily of stale urine covered the baby. From the size of the child, I expected her to be an infant, perhaps 2 or 3 months old. Sr. Agnes’ face was stone like, and I instantly forgot what I came to ask her. Instead I asked Sr. Agnes the baby’s age, and she told me the baby was over two years old. I was shocked. With no emotion in her voice, Sr. Agnes said, “This child is going to die.”
            I almost burst into tears right then and there. I bit my tongue so hard I could taste the blood in my mouth as Sr. Agnes walked over to the old woman and picked the little girl up. The child was too weak to even hold its head up; its neck was the size of my wrist. I wanted to scream. Sr. Agnes brought the little girl close to me. The little girl wasn’t wearing any clothes underneath the dirty blanket, and I could see every single bone in her body. Her skin looked as though it was too big for minuscule frame; it stretched over her distended belly and hung off her limbs. My voice shaking, I asked my counterpart if we could do anything at all for the little girl. It couldn’t be too late, she was still breathing.
           My other counterpart, Felix, whom I had barely noticed was in the room, said that there was nothing that they could do other than transfer her to the hospital 40 minutes away. I was angry and confused, and I wanted to yell at them, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WAITING FOR?! DO IT NOW! LET’S GET IN THAT GODDAMN AMBULANCE OVER THOSE SHITTY ROADS TO THE HOSPITAL! LET’S PUT HER ON EVERY TREATMENT THEY HAVE THIS SECOND! EVERYTHING! ANYTHING!”
           The room was spinning, but at the same time it was so quiet you could hear everyone breathing. My voice still quivering, I asked why the baby wasn’t being taken to the hospital right now. Felix shrugged and said the ambulance was on its way back from a trip to the hospital and that there was nothing we could do for her at our health center.
           Tears started to well up in my eyes, and I asked Sr. Agnes why the little girl wasn’t in our malnutrition program. She told me that the child was born to an unmarried woman who abandoned the baby shortly after birth and ran away to Burundi with the father. The older woman in our office was the little girl’s grandmother. For some reason, the grandmother didn’t report the baby to local officials, who would have included the little girl in the mandatory growth-monitoring program used to catch and treat malnutrition in the village. I have seen severely stunted and malnourished children in our malnutrition program; none of them were even close to this little girl.
          After the ambulance came to pick her up, I went back to the nun’s convent in a daze. It was lunchtime, and I walked back to our hot little kitchen, where three pots of beans, rice, and boiled cabbage simmered on the wood-burning stove. The food that I mentally complain about almost every single day. The food I choke down, having removed any pleasure from the act of filling my stomach. The food I fantasize about while watching Top Chef. The food that I have, and have had, and have never in my life fully appreciated. The food that has enabled me to develop and thrive. The food that that little girl never had. It was just about the worst feeling in the world, seeing that food right in front of me. I felt utterly disgusted with myself. I felt like vomiting and left the kitchen to head back to my bedroom. I was alone, but I kept replaying the scene at the health center over and over in my head.
           I consider it one of the most grievous failings of humanity that we are capable of landing robots on Mars, exploring the deepest depths of the oceans, having machines to wash our clothes and to dry our hair, but we have been unable to provide even the most basic, life-saving products and services to the people who need it most: food, clean water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, and education. It boggles my mind that it’s the year 2013 and people are still dying of starvation when in the developed world we are faced with hundreds of thousands of choices and infinitely customizable options that most people in my village cannot fathom.
           Cars: SUV? Truck? Sedan? 4 wheel drive? Convertible? Manual or automatic transmission? Dental floss: Plain? Waxed? Mint waxed? Cinnamon waxed? A million different kinds of air fresheners. Snuggies. Deodorant. M&Ms. Hair colors. Painkillers. Video games. We live in this really insane world that has its priorities completely backwards. We have houses for our cars, but not for our people. Half of the world is trying desperately to lose weight, through pills and diets and exercise equipment, and the other half are desperately fighting for every pound. 

          To say that I have been sheltered from the utter brutality of the world in my life up to this point is a massive understatement. I think brutality is really the only word I can use to describe what that little girl has suffered. I will never, ever forget her face as long as I live.

            I am not sure if the little girl is going to make it or not. If she makes it through the next few days, she will likely have permanent developmental damage. But this I do know: food is a basic human right. Hunger in today’s world is a matter of power and privilege. Hunger is violence. It is brutality. And we can end it if we really want to, because even one death from starvation is far, far too many.


  1. Thank you for sharing Claire.....I read it with a heavy heart and ask myself what God has for me to do as I read your heart wrenching story. May I rise up and let God lead me in how I and my husband can help. You are also a tremendous writer....Keep writing as I am sure God is going to use you to move many hearts.

  2. Claire, sitting here in my office after reading this... I quietly look around and see the epitome of what this country has become (more extreme everyday) - a country of material, of excess, of greed. Our cars have "homes". That statement really made me think. I wish more people in the United States were exposed to the situations in which you are immersed in everyday. Maybe we would reevaluate our lives... our wants.