I have been working at the Gakoma Health Center in the Gisagara District of Rwanda for almost eight months now. Hundreds of people pour in everyday, cramming the three buildings that make up our health center, each containing less square footage than the average McDonald’s. We serve 47 villages and at the last count, over 32,000 people. It can be overwhelming for the 20 people on staff. On the busiest days, most nurses work from 7 a.m. until after 6 p.m. The past three weeks have been no exception, and it has been busier than ever. On top of those seeking tests for malaria, HIV and TB, the government has a campaign for all those with physical and/or mental handicaps. From what I can tell, they are only being registeredperhaps in anticipation of a future aid campaign. So the tiny hallway leading to my office (which is only wide enough for two people) has been more crammed then ever. Most of the time, I can’t even get through the pulsing mass of people desperate to get their names on a list that may or may not ever provide the much-needed aid to their desperate families.
Last week, I was at the health center in the late afternoon, slowly becoming irritated as my typing was consistently interrupted by crying. This is not unusual as I am in the same building where they take blood samples for malaria, and even though it is just a small finger pick, it normally sends most children into hysterics.
However, after a while I realized that this cry was different; the child seemed older, and it sounded like a constant moan. I peeked out into the hall and saw a child, probably around nine years old, draped limply across her mother’s lap. She was clearly unable to communicate apart from moans and babbling. They had probably been waiting all day, since morning, which would be unbearable to most small children, much less one with special needs. Finally, thankfully, they were called upon. The appointment took less than three minutes although they were probably waiting there for about seven hours. By the time they were out, it was clear that the child was deteriorating, and fast. She started to scream and flopped down on the floor.
For the past few minutes I had been focused on the child. Finally, I turned my attention to her mother. Typically when a Rwandan child is upset, the mother responds with what many of us would deem as “tough love.” But not this one. The mother scooped up her child and murmured reassuring words to her, promising her that they were going home. I expected them to get up and walk home, but I was surprised again. The mother picked up her child and put her on her back, tying her there with a piece of worn and faded fabric. This is typically only done for babies and very small children. But the mother did this effortlessly, and though you knew it was a huge burden, she walked away with lightness and a look on her face of pride, despite the questioning looks that many gave her.
I don’t know this woman’s name. I don’t know where she lives or anything about her life. I do know, however, that she loves her child fiercely, despite her condition and regardless of the stigma and discrimination that I am sure she faces everyday. I saw God in her face, in the quiet determination and fearlessness she emitted to the world around her.