Saturday, 25 March 2017

It takes a village

“It takes a village to raise a child" is a well-known proverb that exists in many African languages. It reflects a world view that is common in African cultures today. Zambian culture places a strong emphasis on family and community. Children are seen as a blessing upon the entire community from God and many people are involved in their upbringing. This is a wonderful aspect of Zambian culture which I admire, and one that has shone through recently in a very tough situation that I have come across.

Children are a blessing from God

Andrew* is 15 years old and the youngest child in his family. Sadly his mother died of cerebral malaria when he was just 7 years old. Andrew's father had already died and then his older brother died of malaria at aged 18. In Zambian culture, grandparents, aunts and uncles or sometimes an older sibling are most often the people who will raise the children of deceased relatives. In Andrew's situation this is exactly what happened. He has been cared for by his elderly grandmother, living with her, and his aunts and cousins who all stay together. His sister lives with different relatives in another town.

During 2016, Andrew suffered a lot of ill health and spent time in two different hospitals. Every hospitalised patient in Zambia has to have a carer who stays with them, so his grandmother and one of his uncles took turns in doing that. Tragically since then, Andrew has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and admitted to a third hospital. I was recently visiting Zambia's capital city Lusaka where the hospital is located and so I was able to visit him.

Hospital in Lusaka

The children’s cancer ward where he is staying has quite a pleasant environment and looks much nicer than other hospitals I have visited here. However, this is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the level of treatment and care that is available. Andrew needed CT scans and unfortunately, as is often the case in Zambia, the machine at the hospital was broken. Our options were to wait - with no idea of how long, possibly weeks or months - or to take him to a military hospital and pay for the cost of the scans which is what I decided to do.

The entrance at the military hospital was as far as I was allowed to go

Going to the military hospital meant a 4-5 hour wait outside for me, as not being Zambian meant I wasn’t allowed to enter the building in case I was a spy. Whilst I was there, the soldiers working there chatted to us and took an interest in Andrew's situation. This time a different uncle of Andrew's had travelled with him and had taken on the role of carer. When I bought them some food to eat for lunch, the soldiers were quick to clear one of the tables in their office for Andrew and his uncle to sit at, and even fetched water so they could wash their hands. I could tell they were sympathetic to the situation and were doing what they could to help.

Andrew and his uncle eating lunch in the soldiers' office

After the scans, we were waiting outside for the taxi when it started to rain. Rain in Zambia isn’t just drizzle, but very heavy rain. I was about to usher Andrew back towards the shelter, knowing he would have to move slowly because he is weak, when a kind lady opened her car door and offered for us to sit inside. Even when the person she was waiting for returned to the car, they waited there and chatted to us so we could stay dry. A simple act of kindness, but help that we we appreciated.

Andrew waiting for the taxi

Back on the ward the next morning, one of the young patients there had very sadly died. Nurses were wrapping the body, and the mother was pacing up and down the ward wailing. Grief here in Zambia is expressed loudly. But although she was extremely sad, she wasn’t alone. As she walked up and down, there were people by her side, who I presume were her friends and family.

We were very upset to hear that Andrew's cancer has spread to his abdomen, which means that he will need to start chemotherapy once his assessments are complete. I was grateful that the staff allowed me to go and talk to him and pray for him before I left even though visitors aren’t even usually allowed on the ward.

Entrance to the children's ward with a 'No visitors' sign

Andrew's uncle has such a good heart. I expect that he will be at the hospital for quite some time, sleeping by his bed side and probably only going outside the building to wash their clothes or if he has enough money to buy food. All of the other children on the ward had female carers; mothers, aunts or grandmothers. The lady at the bed next to Andrew assured us that she has been encouraging Andrew to try and eat, and will continue to do so. Another lady showed us drinks and food that she had bought to build up her son’s strength, which she thought we might find helpful to buy for Andrew. Even my taxi driver turned out to be a hero. Not only did he help me with translation into the local language and took me to a market, shops and a pharmacy where I could buy cheap supplies, but he has said that he will return to visit Andrew and his uncle when he takes customers to that area of town. 

Although I was sad to leave, it is something of a comfort to know that the adults around Andrew will continue to care for him. He may not be their son, but he’s a child and they see him as a gift from God so they will do their best for him. Many of the guardians who we support in Arise do not have the space or funds to take in another child but will do it anyway. There are many Zambians who are selfless in this way, which is quite an inspiration.

One of our Arise guardians and the grandchildren she is raising

*name changed to protect his identity

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