Monday, September 15, 2008

At last- some hope

I have just had the most amazing weekend.
My travelling companions were Katerina, Frank and Michelle.
Katerina is a mature age medical student from Germany. She used to be a nuclear physicist until one day, she was travelling around Australia on a motorbike when she had an accident and hurt her ankle. She was in the middle of the outback, with no doctor for hundreds of kilometres and she suddenly knew what it was like to be sick and injured and not have any medical assistance nearby. She quit her high paying job as a designer of BMW motorcycles and started medical school. She plans to graduate and then work in the third world. I love her to bits and she is a true inspiration for me.
Frank is married to Katerina. He is also a physicist and designs cars for BMW. He wants to identify a project in a third world and work along side Katerina from a more strategic point of view. Very warm, charismatic and incredibly smart without being a nerd.
Michelle is from Australia. She is an opthalmology registrar. During her vacation time, she travels to third world countries and volunteers her time on eye projects. She is only here for a couple of weeks, but we have become firm friends.
We started out on Saturday morning in our small 2 door car the size of a Holden Barina. It took us about 3 hours, along a very rough dirt road, to reach a place called Bulembo. The drive was extraordinarily scenic and I began to understand why Swaziland is called “the Switzerland of Africa”.
Bulembo is an old deserted mining town. In 2001, it closed it’s mine and it was left as a ghost town. An entrepreneur in Canada, as well as some incredibly clever South Africans decided to reinvent the town with the sole purpose of helping orphans. There are currently 90,000 orphans in Swaziland (this is in a population of 1 million). The number of orphans is expected to increase dramatically by 2020. Swaziland only has enough capability to house 800 orphans in “institutions”, the rest of them are left to survive with other members of the extended family. This is all great in theory, but the trouble is, with almost 50% of the population infected with HIV, the relatives are simply dying off. There is no one to look after these children. Not only are children orphaned, but there are children here who are abused, tortured and neglected. Babies are often found dumped in the bushes (mothers often have no other choice with poverty and starvation their only option). There simply is no where else for these children to go.
Bulembo was created with the thought that a town could be created where Swazis could be self-sustainable and orphans could be cared for. In only two years, these amazing entrepreneurs have established industry that has the potential to grow and allow Swazis to create a future. At the moment they are utilising the natural resources of the area. They have a logging industry for timber, a honey factory and there are plans in place to open a factory which will bottle water to sell to the public. They also have the most amazing Lodge there to accommodate tourists. The scenery is simply breath-taking- it is so green and mountainous. The air is so fresh and flowers blossom everywhere. The Lodge is idyllic with exactly me in mind. I walked into my room and just gasped at how beautiful it was. You can eat in the immaculate gardens, or sit in the lounge next to a gorgeous open fire. The service is excellent and the staff are truly delighted that you are there.
There are a few walks to do around the area. After we arrived, we started to explore. In the distance I could see a white couple with 5 small black children. My inquisitive nature led me up to them and I was delighted to find out that we had bumped into one of the groups of orphans. This was the beginning of a truly magical afternoon. The children, aged 3 and 4 were very affectionate with us and we played with them, held their hands, cuddled with them and enjoyed their company for hours. The “parents” of these children were two South Africans, the same age as my parents with their own adult daughters and grandchildren. They heard about this programme and packed their bags to come and live in Swaziland and care for a group of 5 young children. The children stay with them until they are 5 when they move onto another residence and start school. These two people are simply angels- sent here from heaven to do one of the amazing jobs on earth. These children are happy, they are well fed and they are healthy. Some of them obviously have HIV, but these people make sure their medicine is given each day and ensure regular check-ups with paediatricians. The children are thriving.
I could barely sleep that night- I was so inspired by what I had seen and for the first time since arriving in Swaziland, I started to believe their was hope.
The next morning, at breakfast, I met the CEO of the project. An enigmatic man called Andrew. He is a born and bred Swazi (although white) and his family have been in Swaziland for generations. He is a lawyer with a commerce background. He told me about his vision for Bulembu and the plans to extend the town, the projects and the capability to care for orphans. I told him that if he could get the funding, I would come back here after getting my fellowship and open a hospital for the town. I will be attending the Board meeting in October.
We then went to another home for orphans. This place was established by Robyn and Gerry- a couple who have been living in Swaziland for over ten years and have devoted their lives to helping orphans throughout Swaziland. Again, I have never met such extraordinary people in all my life. We heard about some of the absolutely tragic backgrounds of some of the orphans and it was simply inspiring to hear of the strength of such little children who come from absolutely nothing. Robyn, with the assistance of 19 other women, looks after 43 babies from birth to three years. The place was absolutely amazing- cots, toys, changing tables, nappies, bottles and baths everywhere. Not to mention 43 adorable black little babies who melted my heart immediately. Despite the number of babies- the place was incredibly clean, organised and efficient. The children were just delightful and I spent hours cuddling and changing the occasional nappy. The babies wear cloth nappies and the people there were amazed at my clever ability to fold nappies and get a bottom changed in a matter of seconds. The fact is, despite the lack of my own children, I have changed thousands of nappies in my lifetime- I can do it with my eyes closed!
I left that place feeling invigorated with a new passion and direction for my life. I cannot wait to share Bulembu with my parents and sister when they arrive in December.
We got back home late to Siteki and I was again reminded of the grim reality of Swaziland and how far we have to go. My ward round was exhausting and chaotic. I hate Mondays as I always arrive to see how many have died over the weekend and then I receive a whole new group of patients with the same devastating illnesses, just different faces. I never thought that I would ever think a “really good day” is when only one patient dies.
The line for outpatients was never ending and it was agonising churning through them all. The reality is that I face exactly the same scenario tomorrow. Life goes on.


Natasha Grabowski said...

Hi Mel,
I'm one of Mrs. Gonzales students from Saint Lucy's and I am truly inspired by what you are currently doing. I just wanted to let you know that I think the volunteering you are doing is amazing. All of Mrs. Gonzales students look forward to hearing her read your new blogs. Keep safe and I'm looking forward to the new blogs you have yet to post.