He spoke with conviction on behalf of his country…
“you see here in Africa we do not consider those who are disfigured, we do not consider them in employment. They do not get jobs. We do not consider them in marriage. They are divorced.”
He said it so matter-of-factly but with sadness in his eyes, as though he knew this was not how we did things in our rose-tinted western world. I searched deep into those eyes and it was as if he thought I was better, that my world is better. I felt awkward. Because he is wrong.
In our culture we, like Guylain like to think we accept those who look different, those who are disabled, disfigured, those who have mental health illnesses. But if we are honest with ourselves we are not OK with irregularities or anomalies. We are not happy with less than perfection and when we see deformities we generally feel sorry for them. We feel uneasy and full of pity. We know perfection is not possible yet it’s what we strive for. It is the goal. When we see beauty we are in awe… whether it’s a painting, music or a photographic portrait. We want it. We want it in our house, on our Facebook pages and around our necks to make us more appealing. To make us more beautiful. But what is beauty really?
Guylain was in the middle of translating my friends story that she was telling me with a lot of help and interruptions from her fiery and comical mother. She didn’t say any of the above but Guylain, like many of our translators is not merely acting like google translate but he is involved in every aspect of patient care and likes to tell stories, elaborate or give life advice as he ‘translates’. Sometimes telling a story can last a long time. So today he was explaining Congolese cultural facts as Angelique was talking. Back to the story;
Angelique is a 23 year old women who is strong and confident and resilient. She has two children one is 7 and is currently at home being cared for by the village his name is Bienvenue (meaning welcome in french). The other is called something like Riche. A lot of our patients from rural communities can’t read or write. They sign consent with an inky fingerprint and so their names end up getting spelt many different ways. So that is why I don’t actually know his name but it sounds like a french Rich or Rush. Anyway he is 3 and was on the ship with us for a few weeks. He would sleep under Angeliques bed with his grandmother, which is where all our relatives stay. I asked them to describe their village. Mamma got all animated as she proudly explained how it was not what I expected,
“It is a great big village. We have chickens and so many goats! We even have shops and roads!”
She said shops as though it was the height of civilisation. Then she started to tell me about their house and fields that they would work on each day to provide crops to eat and sell. Mainly cassava or manioc and its leaves. I asked her how many children she had. I have learnt that here in Africa that you have to brace yourself for two figures; those that are alive and those that are dead, especially when addressing someone of her age with such deep and intriguing eyes. Her answer was 20 minutes long and a tale of suffering, love, compassion and resilience.
Her first child was less than 5 when he fell in to the fire that was being used to cook on. The child was rushed to a witch doctor which Mamma says was a big mistake. The child died. She was highly animated as she explained to me all the things she tried to do to save him. The second child went to the field to work at the age of 5 and one day when he came home he was deaf and dumb. Mamma says he hasn’t spoken since that day and she doesn’t know why. He is now around 40 and lives with Mamma and Angelique as he can’t work, he can’t support himself. The next three children made it to adulthood and now work on the fields, have wives, children of their own and live in the village. Then came Angelique. She is the last child which is a very special thing in Congo. They are referred to as the most precious and beloved ones. When I told them that I too am my mothers last child, Angelique smiled and Mamma clapped and grabbed my hands and shouted lots of joyful looking words and sounds. We all laughed and Guylain stopped the story the explain the cultural footnotes. I have been learning that on D ward no matter how grave the situation is joy and laughter are always close by.
Angelique got married early which is not uncommon here. She was 14 or 15 and her Husband was in his early twenties. At this time Angelique had a tumour brewing deep inside her mouth which got worse and worse. When the tumour was visible and became unsightly her husband divorced her. She would work the fields until she had no strength then Mamma had to support her Son her daughter and two grandchildren. They tried to get medical treatment for Angelique but failed until a man visited their village and told them about Mercy Ships. Mamma was nearly jumping off her seat with excitement when she got to this bit of the story. She explained how the village told her they shouldn’t go and that Angelique would not make the journey alive. Thank God they didn’t listen.
A few weeks ago we opperated on Angelique. The operation took 11hrs. The tumour was very vascular and so it was a difficult procedure, a little like diffusing bomb … cut the wrong tube = big trouble. She was not fit for surgery as she was so malnourished but if we did not act she may well have died. The team had to make some tough decisions. She came to ICU postoperatively and after two days she got up and we stood together as I taught her all the breathing exercises I knew (thank you GSTT physios!). I thought she was tired and I prepared for her to collapse back in to bed. I was wrong. She gestured that she wanted to walk back into the ward; she was well enough to be stepped down and so we walked together her hand in mine and her drip stand in the other. As I opened the door and she placed her foot back into the normal ward, I was moved to tears at the community spirit; everyone turned to look at who it was when they saw it was Angelique they cheered so loudly, there was clapping and wooping and she was beaming. I had two thoughts; God is good and wow this would never happen at home.
This women that weighs 30kg with a BMI of 12 is stronger than I will ever be and here she is being cheered on by a ward full of faces with holes and tumours and cleft lips.
This is beauty.
Today one of my colleagues told me a story about a 6yr old girl who came last week for a cleft lip repair. Her was Cegrave which is pronounced like ‘c’est grave’ which is french for ‘this is serious or terrible’. After a while of asking why this was the child’s name it was communicated that she was given this name because of her undesirable face. When my colleague said to her that her child is beautiful and that God thinks she was beautiful before the operation and that he thinks she is beautiful now the Mum started to tear up. The child was discharged with a new name… she is now called Blanche which means white. Maybe the white mans reputation in this place has been changed for a second or maybe thats her favourite colour? Whatever the reason this is beauty. What an amazing thing to be able to change the outside but how much more beautiful to be able to change the way her mother views her child and potentially her future. She is no longer a terrible mistake or something to be scared of. As this child grows up she will no longer be a slave to her name.
The longer I spend on D ward the more I understand Love, Joy and Hope. Last week we had a speaker on the ship from Compassion International who said something that spoke directly to my heart. He said
“Love, Joy and Hope are a choice and are not dependant on circumstance.”
It takes great bravery to be joyful and hopeful in all circumstances. These three things are things that exist beyond measure in poverty and can not be bought for any amount of money. I see these things daily on the ward and it’s beautiful.
Angelique is on a long journey of recovery and if you are the praying type this is my plea for help. Right now we are struggling to get her to put on weight regardless of dedicated efforts. She is very malnourished and her immune system is weak. She has infections in her wounds and they are not healing quickly. Somehow this young women is in great spirits today she is laughing and singing and occasionally dancing a little like Beyoncé. Today she even thought she was feeling fatter and so walked around the ward proudly patting her stomach, pretending she is pregnant. She is showing small baby steps of recovery but we have ongoing concerns about her weight and wounds. We are doing all we can but we need God to intervene with this wonderful women. Please pray for her.
As always these are my personal observations and opinions and do not represent Mercy Ships as a whole. All photos used in this blog come from Mercy Ships database and can be shared with the public.