As I walk into the hospital I instinctively stop breathing through my nose.
The smell– a mixture of urine, body odour, stale bandages, dust, and floor polish– is probably fairly typical of a small under-financed hospital in a poor African country.
In 1986, at only 18 years old, King Mswati III was crowned King of Swaziland. At that time, he was the youngest king in the world and one of the last absolute monarchs.
With a population of a million people this small landlocked Kingdom, sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique, relied heavily on foreign aid and volunteer organizations. A corrupt government plus a teenage king with a taste for luxury meant the country’s most needy were left to fend for themselves.
The hospital corridors are crowded with patients, lying on the floor, sitting in the sun, eating mealies. Most of them show signs of horrible wounds with dirty bandages and open sores. Most are laughing and joking – it’s an African thing that even in the middle of the worst situation there is always time for a laugh at someone else’s expense.
The occasional patient lies there silently suffering and in one corner an old woman looks like she is not breathing at all. Her skin is a dusty gray and her wasted legs are covered by a tartan blanket. I have learnt that it is best to keep breathing through my mouth and keep my eyes ahead.
I reach the children’s ward. Our small group of children are abandoned but the Swazi government refuses to believe there is such a thing as an abandoned child. It is contrary to tribal custom. So the children end up here in the hospital, in Ward 8 as long term residents.
Our volunteer efforts provide nannies, toys, food, and even school fees and school uniforms.
“Aish Medem – I am glad you are here,” Julia greets me as I come in. “I need help with Mandla; he won’t eat his phutu (porridge) and I am busy with the baby.”
Mandla is a hefty 4 year old with Down’s Syndrome. He’s quite strong and a handful at times. I get to work, distracting him with my car keys while I shovel the porridge into him while I have the chance.
Julia is working with the new baby – just 3 months old already diagnosed with TB and (we are sure but nobody says the word) probably dying from AIDS.
No sooner am I finished with Mandla – a huge clean up involving his face, hands, chair, floor, and toys – than Precious needs a diaper change. She is 3 years old and this is the only home she has known. She is still not talking properly.
Julia is walking around with the baby (as yet unnamed) with a deep frown making the characteristic clicking noises of disapproval with her tongue.
“What is it Julia?” I ask from the depths of the diaper bucket.
“Hey Medem, I do not know what to do about thees baby. She is very, very sick but the doctor he says he is too busy and this one is going to die anyway so he cannot spare the time.” Julia’s eyes fill with tears and I can see that the doctor is right. The baby is so thin – overwhelmed by the diaper. Her breathing is shallow.
“Maybe we can speak to the Red Cross or Save the Children,” I suggest. Surely, there must be someone who can get some help to this baby – give her a fighting chance.
“Well, Medem – it is in God’s hands”
Indeed, I think to myself. I’ll see who I can phone when I get home.
I feel a sharp tug at my skirt and look down distractedly. There is Mandla looking up at me with a big smile – his characteristic Downs Syndrome eyes gleaming with delight. In his hand he has my lipstick. He has managed to paint it all over his face.
If you’d like to volunteer abroad, visit our Volunteering Abroad Focus Page, filled with resources about how to volunteer, as well as other first person dispatches like this one.
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