Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Her Names Means Victory

Hello my friends and family..
I am beginning my third week here in Dodoma. I’ve spent the past 4 or 5 days with the family of one of the social workers here, Mariam, in an area called Kinsasa. It’s been a little different! Going to work each day is quite a journey. We have to walk down a long dirt path, maybe twenty minutes, until we reach the main road. There, we wait for a dala dala (a taxi-van into which as many people as possible are crammed) or just hitch a ride with some random person, or in the back of a police truck.. for the 15 minute ride into town. There, we still have to walk to the church which is maybe another 20 minutes. Mariam does this every day. She is quite the woman.

Yesterday, I tried to help the girls here cook dinner. I must tell you, we take so many things for granted with our pre-packaged food.. instant microwave meals.. even the stoves we cook with! In order to cook rice, plain white rice, you have to sort through all the grains with your fingers to pick out all the little pebbles that get mixed in. Then, you have to rinse out the pieces of chaff (which takes a while). Only then are the grains actually ready to be cooked. They’re put in a pot of water over glowing charcoal. Then you wait. Everything is cooked over charcoal. It takes way more work than just switching on a burner. Even to get water to drink, it must be boiled first.

You can hear about how people live a thousand times, but you don’t really understand it until you’re living it too.

I have to tell you a story about a little girl. Her name is Victoria.

It was my first time meeting the Lahash kids, about two weeks ago. They’re a really great group of about 70 kids who get to take a break from bleak situations at home and spend each Friday afternoon at the program. As I was introduced to them, I looked from face to face, trying to get to know them.
I stopped at the wide eyes of a tiny little girl, sitting in the front row. Her eyes were the biggest thing about her. Her cheeks were sunken in, and two veins bulged on her forehead. Her limbs, just… skeletal. I had an instinctive idea about what was claiming this little girl’s health. Later, I found out that sadly, I was right.
If you look at a picture of Victoria from just a year ago, you see a big smile, showcasing baby teeth, bright eyes, glowing skin. A healthy child. Now, at 9 years old, I would have guessed that she was 6. As the rest of the children devoured their rice and beans, she passed hers off to another child. I tried to get her to smile and she barely parted her lips.
Victoria’s mother died from an opportunistic infection due to AIDs when she was 2 years old. During birth or breastfeeding, the virus was passed from mother to child, and now Victoria carries the virus that took her mother from her.
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It attacks the immune system, invading the cells that protect our bodies from disease, and turning them into replication centers, creating thousands of new viruses that do the same thing. So while our bodies can try to fight HIV by creating more immune cells, the virus replicates much faster and cannot be stopped. This makes the body extremely vulnerable to sicknesses it would normally be able to fight off easily. Once the CD4 (Immune system) cell count gets low enough, and there are certain diseases present that the body can no longer ward off, a person then has AIDs, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
All we knew was that Victoria was HIV positive, and being cared for by her aunt – an educated, somewhat well off woman. However, when we visited her house last Thursday, we found out that like way too many of these types of situations, the aunt is focusing on her own children, leaving her sick little niece to care for herself. Often, HIV positive children (or people in general) who are living with relatives are completely neglected because the in the family’s mind, they’re dying anyways.
Victoria oh-so quietly told Mariam that she can’t eat because her stomach hurts. Her head hurts too. Her nose is running and she has a congested cough. She hasn’t been to school for an entire month. She says she is responsible for taking her own medicine. By that, I hope she means antiretrovirals, which she should have access to through the programs. Antiretrovirals almost halt the replication of HIV, so although they cannot destroy the virus, they can suppress it, giving the immune system a chance to function properly. If Victoria is taking ARVs regularly though, she shouldn’t be in this condition. What worries me is that if the pills aren’t taken in a regular manner – if dosage is interrupted or stopped, then the virus may become resistant to them, and the medicine would no longer have any effect. Also, if the person is not eating well and living in unsanitary conditions, which is the case with Victoria, this compromises the immune system as well.
Today we went back to see Victoria. She had been throwing up and was too weak to change her clothes. Her cough shook her body. We took her to a clinic to see if we could find out what can be done to help her. People with HIV are supposed to go get a CD4 cell count done every month, and if the count too low to sustain their health, they are put on antiretrovirals. We found out that Victoria’s aunt has not been taking her in for these visits, and plagiarizing the doctor’s signature on the card that is supposed to verify her visits. They told us that we needed to take her to the hospital to have her chest x-rayed for tuberculosis, a disease which people who have HIV are particularly susceptible to.
For those of you who know my baby girl Hannah, she’s 4 years old and tiny. I could carry her for hours without getting tired. Victoria is twice Hannah’s age, and just as easy to carry. She sunk into your lap like a baby, too weak to hold her head up for long. Her x-ray came out with cloudiness in her lungs, a probable sign of TB. We’ll find out more about this and her CD4 count tomorrow.
Her name means Victory, yet her body is battling a virus which it will never defeat.
In a way, this story is heavier than others I have told you. It wouldn’t be so hard for her aunt to take her to the doctor, get her medicine, and feed her at the VERY least. When I carried her back to her aunt I would have rather kept her with me..
Ah. I don't know much else to say right now.
Look for pictures on Facebook, I'm having my mom post them for me.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

At long last..

Hi everybody

I know I promised blog posts, and I really have been trying! Internet access is extremely limited – I’ve only been able to get one once since I’ve been here, and it takes a looooooong time.

I’ve been in Tanzania for about a week and a half now, and it seems impossible to be able to tell you everything that I have intended to, but I will begin with what life is like, and then I will tell you the stories of some very special people.


Where am I right now?

I am in Dodoma, Tanzania, a SMALL city in the middle of the country. It consists of a small business district surrounded by rural areas, and “neighborhoods” ranging from extremely poor to (African) middle class.There are soo many people, but it is peaceful, and they’re very welcoming and polite.

Who am I staying with?

I’m staying with the Muhagachi family – Mama and Baba Askofe. Baba was just ordained as the bishop of Central Tanzania last year, a very honorable position. He is a very influential man. He likes to talk and educate me about African history, Tanzanian politics, the church ministry, and just about annyythinng. He’s very wise. And reminds me a bit of Bill Cosby.
Mama is the backbone of the ministry here. She is always working so hard caring for people in the community. On top of that, she makes sure I'm taken care of, along with all her other children -
Boke and Victor are 16 and 13 and in boarding school. Grace and Peace are my younger sisters, 12 and 7. Three cousins are staying in the care of Mama and Baba as well. Justini is 9, and Shangwe and Kibiro are my age, and so sweet :)

What are the "Living Conditions?"

I'm living in an African house with many people, quite like I do at home. There's electricity most of the time, although we have had to use the lantern almost every night lately. They have a squat toilet, and showers and laundry I do with a bucket in the same room.. which is my least favorite part of being here :P lol.
I have my own room sometimes, although there are almost always guests staying with us. I sleep with a mosquito net, but it doesn't prevent me from having 50 bites all over my body. Malaria is bad here, and I'm thankful that I am taking preventative medicine. People get sick with it ALL the time.

What am I eating?

Food is simple here. We have tea at 10 AM, Rice and beans at 3 PM, and Ugali (Corn Meal) and beans at 9 PM. Every day.
Food doesn't just sit around in pantries waiting to be eaten, so every meal is a gift that keeps you alive. And the days that something like peas are served... it's fantastic :)

What am I doing?

The work Lahash does with Iringa Road church here in Dodoma is mainly child sponsorship and home based care. Many days we walk from house to house across town, checking to make sure that people in the program have what they need to stay alive. Many people who have HIV, orphans being raised by grandparents, families in desperate situations...
There is SO MUCH need here. Being experienced by REAL people who have good hearts. Who feel love, joy, fear and pain all alike.
You know those videos that organizations play.. of dirty kids in tattered clothes.. they play emotional music in the background, hoping to tug at your heart.. But we often dismiss it as being too far aways to be real or urgent..
I drive down the street and it could be that video clip playing through my window. I really want you, my friends and family, to understand that everything that you have heard about places like this is no exaggeration. I visit houses of familier - cement shacks that on the inside look and feel like a cave. A family of 5 or 7 stay in this dark, stuffy 8x10 room, with a dirt floor, often no bed, often no food. Maybe a bowl of dried sardines and a bag of rice in the corner.
Please understand- I'm not jsut telling you the worst scenario I have seen. This is EVERY family I have visited.
I want to tell you their stories. I want you to know the names of those children in the tattered clothes. I want you to know what makes them smile and what they hope for.
I want you to hear about hard working Mommas.
THEY want YOU to hear.
And to know that this place is not far away. I'm here now.
They want you to know that Africans are intelligent, resourceful, loving and joyful. THEY want you to know this. They ask me to tell you this. They ask me to invite you to come here :)
The children in the sponsorship program recieve holistic care - spiritual, nutritional, mental, physical, educaational. Most have lost parents to AIDS, some are HIV positive themselves. It is ensured that they are going to school, being fed, and are in good health.
Each child has a story, deeply saddening, yet hopeful.
Let me begin.

A week ago I went with Pastor Manaseh, Mama Mariam, Leah, and our Kenyan friend Jeff walking for hours and hours. We visited two homes.

The first was the home of one of the kids in the program, his name is Charles. They had noticed a sudden change in his disposition just before he stopped coming to the program last month, so they wanted to find out what was behind this.

When we came, he was home alone, although he should have been in school. Charles is 17 and was just able to begin attending school I believe when he joined the program. He was able to skip ahead to the 5th grade, but we found out that he hasn’t been in school since last month.

When he came out of the tiny cement house he shares with his mother and little sisters, he looked so sick. His eyes were half open and glazed over and his face was sweaty. We all sat down in front of the house and Mariam tried to get him to talk about what was going on, although he didn’t want to. He stared at the ground and spoke quietly, but unearthed what was really going on.

His father is employed but has another wife and another family. Whatever he makes goes to feed them, not Charles and his younger sisters. His mother tries to make money by digging in the dump for bones which can be ground into chicken feed. Whatever money she makes from this, she will often spend on “home brew,” home-made beer, which could potentially kill someone if they got ahold of the wrong batch. Charles admitted that he had been using and selling marijuana for the past two years, but does not use it anymore, which probably would explain the poor condition he was in – malnutrition and withdrawal. We looked inside the house, which basically consisted of blankets and a few buckets on the floor, and the only food we could find was two rotten pieces of bread. That was all the food they had. The reason that Charles hadn’t been in school was that his uniform was torn and much too small. His shoes were split in half. Children who are not in proper uniform will get sent home from school. Just the other day a child was sent home for not wearing socks. Also, I believe that the house they are living in doesn’t belong to them. If the owners come back at any time, they could be evicted.

The good news is that we took Charles with us to the market and got him new shoes and brought his family some food. He was smiling when we left. Hopefully it does the children good, because parents will often sell the food or clothes their family is given, and just go buy home brew. It’s desperation.
The other good news is that I was able to sponsor Charles' little sister, Mariam. She is one of the most solemn little 10 year olds I have ever seen. And now even when I go home, I will have a permanent connection with them, ensuring she gets what she needs to grow up strong, despite situations like this.

The second home we visited is a family that they have been working a lot with for the past couple weeks. Leah and Leisha (The girls from the US) had told me a lot about them.
Mama Sedam is paralyzed on one half of her upper body, I was told, because of domestic abuse. She is literally single handedly caring for her 24 year old son, Chimanga, who is completely blind, and her little son, Sedam. They had been living in a tiny 8X8 room attached to her mother’s house, until she kicked them out sometime last week. Leah and Leisha had arrived just in time to find them trying to move their belongings down the street, many of which were not worth saving, and helped them move into a new place. When we visited, Chimanga was sitting outside of the house, very cheerful. They say he likes to look his best, and won’t go to church unless his clothes are clean and he has shaved. He is also very good at singing and repairing shoes. This family is in desperate need of better living conditions. They are currently in a maybe 10x8 mud house, with no food. They have so few resources – The mother can only use one arm and the son cannot see! How can they make money to eat? So the some of the church staff are working to try to find a better place for them to live, and to help them start a micro-business, selling charcoal or fixing shoes… The problem is that there is so little extra money. There is only so much that they can do. They also understand that it is so much more than just trying to use money to fix a problem, or always buying food for a family when they need it. That would put the family in an even worse spot than before when the assistance stops. They work on sustainable living, which is where the micro-business comes in. They want to work to help families be self-sustaining, not dependant on a program, which is so good.

Another big problem right now is Malaria.. Two of the children in my new “adopted family” have had to go to the hospital for Malaria treatment in the past 3 days. Here it’s just a fact of life. Everyone gets it, and hopefully recovers. Shomary, the driver for the church is the sweetest guy. He has kind eyes. His daughter died of Malaria last month. 4 years old.

The really great news about things like this is that it opens up so many opportunities for you and me. This program operates on very little money, but a LITTLE can change everything.
It can help Mama Saddam set up a small business, it can ensure that Charles and Mariam have more than just moldy bread to eat..

So please, let these people matter to you. Theyre not just a character in a story, because I have taken their hands, stood in their houses, held their children.. They have so many lessons to teach is about resiliance and grace and sincerity. So please see them. Please love them... As much as you love me, or more. :)

(I hope everything in this blog makes sense.. it is assembled from random things I have written throughout the week.. I miss you all, I'm doing well. Peace :) )

Friday, February 5, 2010

All Night Long in Washington

I'm here in the Washington Dulles airport now, for my12 hour layover. It's 12:15 PM.
The only place open is Guava & Java, so I've been sitting here in a nice little area, right by a plasma tv that has been playing the same history channel documentary about the White House overrrr and overrr and overrr again. I'm beginning to memorize it.
I've been keeping company with a few people who have either missed their flights or disturbingly lost their place on their flight even though it was confirmed..
Anyways, so far so good.

Three or so hours later....

Oh my.
I was doing really well until 1:00 or so. Things died down and people started falling asleep.. But I'm a small girl by myself, so I can't let myself do that. Waking up to missing luggage is something I would not prefer...
So I just keep ordering coffee. Ah.
3 AM is a time of night I rarely see. I stay up this late probably only 4 or 5 times a year, and only when I have to. I love my bed around 11 :) Yesssss.
Coffee in the middle of the night does strange things. It speeds up my heart rate and my blood, but my mind and muscles are way out of sync.
Right now I don't feel adventurous in the least.
We were watching the movie Unaccompanied Minors right before we left.. It's about these kids who are flying to their dad's house, but get snowed in at the airport where they have a layover, and they go on all these wild adventures in the airport while being chased by security guards. I thought that might be what tonight would be like, but it hasn't. Sadly. (Just kidddinggg)
Six more hours.
After this, I think I would like a bed. Or somebody familiar. But actually I get to look forward to 17 hours on a plane! Yeah yeah! The weird thing about being as short as I am is that if I sit in a plane seat correctly, my legs stick straight out. I wish I actually fit in chairs correctly, so my rear wouldn't get so sore.
17 hours on a plane. 17 + 6 = I don't know.. 23.
23 hours till I arrive in Tanzania.
Then 8 hours on a bus to Dodoma = 31
31 more hours of transportation.
I've been gone 9 hrs so far = 40 hrs.
This is the longest journey.. I'll just try to take it bit by bit for now.

5 AM:
I don't really know when I'll be able to get on the internet again. I'm leaving the country in a few hours, yikes..
So here are some pictures of where I have been, for your viewing pleasure:
< That's my happy smile for ya. After I tried showering in a bathroom sink.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

From One of Many Airplanes: February 3

It was hard to tell whether we were rising to meet the sun, or the sun was rising to meet us.

As I write this, I'm on a plane home from Portland. One more night in my own bed.
Oregon is beautiful. In Saint Louis, every defining feature was made by the hands of a man, save for the rivers. But in Portland.. No human made those mountain like a mural against the sky, or treen that stay green although it is winter.
Living near these things must spark a different state of mind. Being aware that we are a part of this earth upon which we were created. More than just a system of walls and concrete, services and technology. There is freedom beyond that.

The people at Lahash are really wonderful and welcoming. They are well organized and have a clear mission and exemplary vision. Before last summer, their office only consisted of a small room in the basement of a church, but they have been given a huge, 100 year old house from which they are now operating. Much of the house is in pretty bad condition though, so they are in the process of renovating.
During training, I watched some DVDs about serious issues facing sub Saharan Africa, such as crime, corruption, HIV/AIDs and also about daily life there. I was able to eat a couple of East African style meals, which I think I will grow to enjoy,  and was able to learn a lot more about the history and mission of Lahash international in East Africa.
On Tuesday night, I was really, really excited to be able to see Joo Ae!  (For those of you who don't know, Joo Ae is my good friend from Korea. She just moved from StL to Portland to attend school there.) I visited her apartment and met several of her Korean friends, and her room mate from Houston. We ate Korean food and had a really great time! For those of you who have been worried or missing Joo Ae, she is doing really well and she is very happy in her new home!
I'm trying not to think too much about my departure on Thursday.. I have been trying not to think about it too much. For me it might be better that way. Save it for when the time comes :)