It often surprises me how well this emotional compression works. How you can keep going. It is certainly different when things are closer to home. Holding it together as I watched my dear sister Christo suffer one horrible day in May took pretty much all I had. As others encouraged me to call out to her I knew that it was beyond me. I marvelled at her brother, cradling her in his arms and calling her back to him, his display of love and affection pushing me that much closer to the tearful abyss. But whenever the wails are less familiar I can remain more detached. It makes me question my compassion from time to time but I know that to respond differently would be to cease to function.
The wails themselves all but sound the same. There is a certain pitch and intensity. A death wail. I heard one in May as I rounded our malnutrition clinic building about to jump in a van with a team of interns. We were due in a COTN school for a morning of updating records. I felt my body tense up as I heard the sound and then a lady with tears beginning to flow down her cheeks came around the corner and passed me. She moved quickly and was talking to herself. It was clear that the sound had come from her. I quickly found Mr Phillip and he told me that the lady had just arrived at the clinic with her daughter. He told me that the child was about to die.
Stepping in to our clinic I look for our Head Nurse in the little crowd that has gathered, some with their own complaints, others there to see what was happening. I asked about the child.
“We’ve done all we can for her but she’s just passing off.”
I went over to the bed where the tiny child lay. What was her name? “She’s called Zainab.” What had happened? The answer is so often the same in Sierra Leone. “We don’t know.” It seems that Zainab had not been ill for very long but had just suddenly deteriorated. I have often been amazed while in Sierra Leone by how resilient the human body can be. How desperate a situation we can find our bodies in only to see them slowly claw their way back. It’s maybe because in Sierra Leone people like the little boy pictured are dying of the kinds of things that have no right to end anybody’s life. But there is a point beyond which return takes the especially miraculous. It seemed that Zainab had passed that point. I sat with her and remembered how Alice had slipped away. One tiny breath after another. That was when I realised that Zainab wasn’t breathing at all. I looked at her eyes and saw a glassy, fixed gaze. I called our Head Nurse over and she handed me a stethoscope and placed the other end where a heart had once beat. No sound. “She has passed off.” She listened through the ear pieces to confirm it for herself. Zainab had died.
This would be a threshold moment for my intern team. Up until this point Sierra Leone had held back a little from showing them the truly crushing part of poverty. It whipped through them like a whirlwind. As it must do. Death is much more a part of life in Africa. Children die here. Often. In fact one out of every four children born this year in Sierra Leone will die as Zainab did. So many lives, so much potential. Gone. The wails will sound all but the same. They are the desperate, exasperated, angry, shrieks of mothers who have lost a part of themselves. In years to come they will be asked how many children they have. They will say four or six or eight. But three have passed off. They will say it in a matter of fact way which will make the questioner ponder whether African women have the same connection to their children as Western women do. After all, so many of them die, perhaps the tragedy is less, the impact watered down.
But they never heard the wail.