A line of baby chicks cross my path, scurrying behind their mother. The parking lot is littered with cars, parked anywhere a vehicle can park; on the sidewalk, in the grass, half-way up hills. We wind our way between them like a maze, toward the underpass of the building. Every patch of shade is cluttered with people sitting on the muddy, dirty ground. Some people look like they have been here for days, propping themselves up with tired hands, or giving up completely, stretched out on the pavement napping in any hope of shelter from the blaring sun. we enter the first block of the building and the stinging aroma of old urine hits me like a backhand to my senses. The signs are confusing. We turn down one hallway and end up outside, along an open air corridor filled with people sitting along each side. They watch us like walk in our quick-step like entertainment they have waited all afternoon to arrive. Its strangely quiet, and our footsteps echo on the cool, cracked tiles beneath our feet.
We are wandering, and i’m concentrating hard to not touch railings, walls or anything my fingers may unintentionally linger on. George asks someone who may have worked there, where ward 18 was located, and she kindly directs us with little words, just a hand motion that suggests straight until a bend to the left and then possibly in the area directly over our heads. She tries to shake Georges hand, but George politely pulls away and gives her two phantom pats on her back. We speed off in the direction to which she indicated.
Ascending a long steep ramp to the second level. Whats left of the ceiling is stained with brown water marks. The brightly painted walls is peeling to such a degree to looks like the whole wall is covered in a colorful fringe; one gust of wind through this hallway could send the entire wall to dust. Someone has tried to paint a uplifting, childlike mural along the wall, no doubt to indicate the direction of the pediatric ward, but the paint dulls in the dim light, and the state of the rest of the wall, creating the feeling like we are walking down a dark alleyway in a bad part of town. I can’t stop staring at the ceiling as we continuing ascending up this never ending ramp. I wondering how old this hospital is, and can’t help thinking this collapsing ceiling is made completely of abestise, a once common mineral mined in Swaziland; although no longer used for construction, can still often be found in standing buildings throughout the country.
We pass a sign for operating theaters, and I glance down the narrow hallway. The ceiling is hanging low, and covered with the same brown spots. The wing is reeking from the bleach, in a poor attempt to disguise the gaping potholes in the tiles on the floor. We reach another outdoor corridor, connecting two wings of the building, again lined with people camping in the shade with expressionless faces. A sign directly in front of us reads “WARD 18 -WOMANS WARD”. For the first time I realize this is going to be one big room. The thought hits me, and I immediately am bewildered why George’s mother has come here and not to the nice clinic down the road.
Approaching the two parlor doors to the ward, I can see metal bars, and pink sheets hanging around each bed, of which, there are at least two dozen. There is no one at the door, and we linger for a moment before we open, breathing against the tiny glass windows searching for something familiar. I’m half hoping this isn’t the room. It can’t be. We enter and take a few unsure steps, George is scooping the room looking for any sign of someone coming to stop us, as I try not to make direct eye contact with anyone. I feel like I am invading at least 40 people’s privacy, especially the woman in the second bed, closest to the window who is sleeping upright, with not a stitch of clothing on her body, aside from the scarf wrapped loosely around her head.
Luckily Georges mother is in the second row, first bed by the main aisle. I am happy to see her face resting peacefully, and estactic that we do not have to venture further into this sea of strangers, searching their weak and tired faces. George gives her a gentle shake on her shoulder, and stands over her until she opens her eyes. “hi mom.” he says. I want to hug her, and steal her away from this place. He doesn’t seemed phased, and I am traumatized.
We chat for a while, she should be going home tomorrow. Her diabetes has been uneasy as of late, and the weekend festivities of a retaliative Lobola ( the cultural tradition of deciding a new brides price with the grooms family, which is usually proceeded by a party something similar to an engagement party, meets a BBQ), sent her blood sugar sky rocketing. The Taiwanese doctor attending to the female ward, refuses to discharge her until her levels stabilize. Her spirits are high, as they always are, and she begs us to bring her something edible for lunch. Hospital food is a universal desperatity, so we don’t waste time making a plan to smuggle her a nice take-away from our favorite restaurant. We laugh as George coughs and I sneeze, and she asks for a phone number for a casket maker. I’ve never quite understood the dark swazi humor, but looking at the 3 of us in our separate ill states, we could take bets on who would need it first. I have grown very fond of George’s mom; she is strong willed, but kind natured. Evident by the immensity of friends she had made with all the staff and patients in Ward 18. She reminds me daily at the school that she runs, and where I work, of her kindness with her endless involvement in every child’s life and concern for their well being. This is a commonality that both of our mothers share.
As we leave, George says “don’t ever take me here…” I burst out a quick, “ummm… yeah… me either.” I realize at that moment, that George isn’t as comfortable as I thought about his mother being at the government hospital, and i’m relieved, but curious. Before I can ask, he explains, “ at least she is only paying 10 Emalageni a night, the private hospitals charge a couple grand a night.” it suddenly all makes sense, although I would still prefer to go to a private health care clinic , especially in Swaziland, I am reminded of several moments in my own life, living in the USA, where an option of government health care could have saved me thousands of dollars.
The more I thought about it, the more this somewhat traumatizing visit to the government hospital had me concerned, I was actually jealous. I thought about the sea of faces I passed, in the open-air corridor. People that had no doubt traveled great distances to come seek health care. People that probably used their last, worn out bills in their wallets to get to the hospital. Maybe they don’t have running water. Maybe they don’t have electricity. Maybe some of them live in a house built with mud-bricks and sticks. Then my thoughts turn to writing this blog, as I sit here typing now. I think about my friends and family and how they must have been worried by the end of paragraph one, what if something were to happen to me? Where would I go? Its ironic really, that in the states I rarely had health care. I made over $40,000 a year, plus benefits, and I still couldn’t afford a trip to the doctor, let alone the emergency room stateside. Not to get into a political rant about universal healthcare, but after living here, and seeing how a government hospital can help the mass majority, despite insurance benefits or community standing; it amazes me that a 3rd world country, such as Swaziland, can care for its people better, and with more options then a country as rich and powerful as the United States. Something worth pondering don’t you think?