I was supposed to have a meeting in the office before picking up a few staff members downtown to go with them to visit one of our clients in the hospital on the other side of the city. I woke up at 7am and I realized there was actually no way I could make it to the office (the opposite direction of town), have a meaningful meeting, and still make it to town when planned. So, I turned the meeting into a phone call, made some coffee, and got on the road, sending a text letting my colleagues know I was on the way.
Despite excessive traffic (can you call it excessive if it’s the norm?), and a misguided google-maps that caused me to take two u-turns, I made it to the meeting point at exactly 11am. I called one of my colleagues. When I said, “I’m here” he made a surprised sound and said, “OK, I am on the way.” I could hear in the background the shouts and laughter of schoolchildren which meant that he was still at the center in Mukuru that has a primary school attached to it – and is on the other side of town. I parked the car, paid someone to wash it, walked to Dominos and ordered a pizza. As I downed a large Swahili chicken pizza in a matter of minutes, I realized I might be a little bit of a stress eater. I tried to catch my breath while I responded to some emails.
An hour later, I met up with my colleagues. We went together to the hospital. I had asked to meet this client because his story was shared with me last week and it had left an impression on me. I wanted to meet him, and – if he allowed it – take some pictures to share his story. What I had been told was that he was a young man who was very sick. He had joined our program a few months ago when he was bed-ridden. He has been refusing to take his medicine, and often refuses food, so he his health deteriorated. So, last week he was admitted to to hospital. Currently in Kenya, doctors are on strike, so it was a bit of a process getting him admitted into one of the private hospitals and it is really only because of our staff advocating for him that he was admitted. This past week, our staff has been visiting him and taking care of him. They have even bathed him. I wanted to share this story because I am so impressed by our staff.
When we finally arrived and found his room, I met Boniface – he likes to be called Boni for short. He looked like a skeleton with skin on, but he had bright eyes and a beautiful smile. As soon as I saw him in the hospital bed, clutching his blanket and looking so desperate, any thought of asking to take his picture was gone. There was no way I could strut in there, just some white dude with a camera wanting to snap a few pictures of a sick guy. How disgraceful. How disrespectful. I know it’s part of my job, but I wish social media potential wasn’t always at the forefront of my mind like that.
We intended to visit with him, and encourage him for an hour or so and leave. However, as soon as we arrived – around 1pm – he said that he had been discharged, and would not forgive us if we left without him. Based on the way he looked, I could not believe that he had been discharged. The catheter bag that was collecting his dark urine indicated to me that he was severely dehydrated and still needed care. We had a private consultation with the doctor to confirm if what he said was true. I resisted the urge to butt my white nose into this business, and allowed the Kenyans to talk. We were told that he was right. He had been discharged. A theory of one of my colleagues is that the hospital decided he was a hopeless case and that they were sending him home to die.
We called Boni’s mom to come and get him. As with almost everything in Kenya, the discharge was more of a process than I expected it to be. We didn’t leave the hospital until almost 6pm. Two of my staff members, Boni, and his mom all in my car, listening to the radio and and talking about normal things like traffic and the new mall that opened, and I was trying to ignore the fact that I was basically driving Boni to his death bed. I was so angry that he hadn’t been treated better at the hospital and that they had just written him off. How could he still be dehydrated after a week of being in the hospital?? What had they been doing?? I was feeling that way, but to the hospital’s credit, I should report that they did waive his fees and prescribe him some medicine. So, it wasn’t all bad.
We arrived at Boni’s house, and helped him into the house. You could practically feel the relief that he felt as he laid down is his own bed and let out a deep sigh. There’s something comforting about being home. His mom had tears in her eyes as she thanked me for driving them home – using public transportation would have been a cost, probably would have taken at least an hour longer, and would have meant that she would have had to carry him by herself from the highway into the slum where they live.
We prayed together and were leaving, but when we walked out of the door, a man was standing outside. I could see in his eyes that he was a hard man, and that he was not happy to see strangers there. He asked who we were in a confrontational way. Boni’s mom intervened and told him that we were from the hospital with Boni, and introduced this man as Boni’s older brother, Michael. She then quickly tried to cause a distraction by showing me her chickens and telling me they were about to lay eggs.
Michael stepped in between her and me and asked me, “What were you doing with my brother?”
Not knowing if he knew about his brother’s HIV status, I said, “We were bringing him from the hospital. I’m from the church. I think you know my colleagues who are also from the church.” I pointed at my colleagues.
“I know them”, he said. “ What organization do you work with? You work with people like my brother? Do you know about his situation?”
Was he referring to Boni’s HIV status? I still wasn’t sure, so I said, “Yes. We work with people like your brother. I work with an organization the supports churches who have community programs.”
His next question surprised me. He said, “I can see in your eyes that you care about my brother. You’re very emotional” (I’ve gotten that before), and then he asked, “where does that come from?”
Without thinking, I said, “My faith. Jesus. It comes from Jesus in me.”
At this point he glanced at his mom and my colleague who were listening intently to our conversation, and he grabbed my arm. Pulling me away from them and behind the house, he said, “Let’s talk over here.”
My mind drifted to the car in front of the house that I was pretty sure I had left unlocked and the laptop in my bag, but I brushed that away. It seemed important to give Michael my full attention.
“I work in construction,” he said,” I work very hard. It’s good work, and I like it. But I come home and my brother is sick on his bed. He is depressed and sometimes crazy. He doesn’t even want to get better. I don’t understand it. He doesn’t take his medicine. In my job, I fix things. It’s what I do. But I can’t fix this. All my money goes to him, and he doesn’t even get better, doesn’t even say thank you. I’m tired of it. He just wants to die, and sometimes I wish that he would.”
Not really knowing what to say, I just started talking. “Boni is lucky to have a brother like you. You are hardworking, and you have been taking care of him. You are a good man. But… I know that it isn’t easy.” – When I said this, his eyes softened for the first time since we had begun talking.
“I know it’s not easy,” I continued, “and I know that it seems like you can’t fix this. Some of it is fixable, though. He is sick, and the medicine will fix that. You should encourage him to take it. But, he is also struggling with depression and that is in his mind, and in his spirit. That’s hard to fix, and sometimes our efforts to fix that in other people make it worse. Be easy on him. This program we have will help him. We will be counseling him and encouraging him and making sure he eats well and takes his medicine. Our hope is that he will get better soon. I believe we will see him walking in a few months. We want to come along side him – and you – to make sure that happens.”
Before he responded, his mom came over and said, “You should really be going.” She was right. It was getting dark, and it would be best for me to be out of the slum before it got too late.
As I turned to go, Michael grabbed my arm again. “Will you come back?”
“My colleagues will be coming every week.”
“No. I want you to come. I want to hear more about this faith you have.”
“Ok. I will. I’ll see you soon.”
I’m sitting at home now processing all of this.
I’ve seen enough to know that I can take nothing for granted.
I know that Boni may not get better.
But, the brightness in his eyes, his big smile, and his supportive – though somewhat reluctant – family give me hope that he will improve.
If you are a praying person, I ask you to pray for Boni to gain strength and to improve in his health – and in his attitude.
Pray for his mom who is so sweet and is doing her best to take care of him.
And, most of all, pray for Michael. Pray for him to have compassion on his brother, to remain strong and to continue to have steady work, and to be open to hearing more about this faith that I have.
Thanks for reading. I’ve realized that I only blog these days when I need to process something…so, thanks for being my therapist 🙂