I sat in deepest Africa and cried! Looking back on my stay in Africa now, I ask myself: “Why did I cry?’’
Even now, many years later, I can feel the pity and compassion on the one hand, and the impotent rage with myself on the other, about the conditions of life I saw. I could not understand how it was possible that at a time when man was able to go to the moon, it was also possible for man to allow such conditions as I saw to exist on earth. All around me in the villages of Ethiopia I saw sickness, disease, crippled adults and children, and . . . no medical help whatsoever.
“There is money enough to go to the moon,” I raged within myself; “millions — billions of it — but when it comes to humanity, to a little bit of love or compassion towards people, then money becomes a commodity which is suddenly in very short supply.”
At war with the world and myself, I traveled with my husband by car through the back roads of Ethiopia, and I must confess I was not very good company. This was by no means my first encounter with extreme poverty. Time and time again over the years I had been shocked into an awareness of my own privileged position when I met up with it. It didn’t matter whether this happened to be in India, South America, or in the slums of Western civilization.
Perhaps it is the fact that I escaped the gas ovens of Nazi Germany which first made me aware that through no act of my own I live a privileged life. Why did I escape, and millions of others didn’t? Why do I live a life of reasonable comfort? Why do I have the possibility of working productively? Why am I free of bodily want? There are no answers I can find to these questions, but I believe they are the reasons for my awareness of others whose lot is not as fortunate as my own.
Long ago I realized that I am not made of the stuff revolutionaries are made of. I do not have the ability to change the world, and it is only in the small section of life I move in that I can hope to help people and make them feel welcome.
Village after village we came to, the same experience was ours. Simply for the reason that our skin was “white,” people came and begged — not for money, not for food, but for medicine. Not highly sophisticated medicines, but basic remedies to clear up an infection, to relieve a fever, to alleviate pain. In these villages I could find nothing even to ease a headache. The result of this dearth of simple medicines was all around us, crippled people, feverish people, dying people. Everything we saw added up to an endless amount of unnecessary suffering. I kept saying to myself: “If only I had known . . .’’ It would have been easy enough to buy some simple medicines and take them along on our trip, which would at least have given temporary help to a few.
Particularly well do I remember one village. The car needed attention and sick at heart with all the misery I had seen I asked to be left under a big tree near the center of the deserted-looking village, whilst the driver attended to the car.
It was close to midday, oppressively hot even in the shadow of the big tree, and not a breath of air could be felt. One after the other they came, the people of the village. Some simply curious, others sick — dragging themselves along — hoping I could help them. If I ever regretted not being a member of the medical profession, it was on this trip through Ethiopia.
The earth under the tree was rough and uneven. I sat on one of the exposed roots, wiping the perspiration off my face, hot and frustrated that I could not even talk to the villagers as we had no common language. It was unavoidable that the procedure I had gone through before in other villages was going to be repeated once again. They showed me the boils on their necks, took off the dirty rags covering their infected sores to keep off the flies, and I was totally helpless to give them any aid whatsoever.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw standing to the left of me a young woman clutching a near naked child to her breast. It was a baby really, approximately ten months old. There was such a look of despair on her face, and such a wealth of love in the way she held the babe, that all my good intentions not to get involved went out of my head.
I got up, and as if the others knew where I wanted to go, they moved aside for me to go to the young woman. Can you imagine my horror, when I looked at the face of the infant and realized when I saw its milky eyes that it was blind? The milky whiteness of the eyes stared out of the filthy little face; the eyes, particularly dirt-encrusted, were full of flies, tormenting the child. Apathetic and unmoving the child lay in its mother’s arms, the arms that so obviously tried to shield it, enfold it with love, and keep it alive.
Rage boiled inside me at the sight of this suffering and at the inability, deliberate or otherwise, of our twentieth-century civilization to teach these people the basic rudiments of hygiene.
I touched the young woman’s arm and motioned her to go and sit under the tree. By sign-language I showed her that I was going to the car and would come back. Back at the car I took out our water bottle which we carried at all times for emergencies. All it contained was well and truly boiled water. The only other things I took with me were a billycan, a cup, and a clean handkerchief as well as a box of matches.
Not far from the tree was a well and on my way back from the car I filled the billy with water and took it along. Settled under the tree again my heart filled with pity, for I had to quash their hopes that I had brought medicines. The sudden light of hope seemed to die in their eyes when I said, “Not medicine,” but pointing to the water bottle I said, “Water, good water.”
To show them what I meant to tell them, I poured some of the water out of the bottle into the cup and drank it. Then I pointed to the water in the billycan and shook my head, closing my lips tightly and putting my hand over them to really seal them. After this mimic I picked up the billy and held a match under it to show them that it had to be boiled.
All these activities took a long time, for talking by gestures only, I often had to repeat myself before my meaning had been understood. When I finally sat down again, I looked at the young mother and hesitantly held out my arms to her, to give the babe to me, for I didn’t know whether she would trust me with her precious burden.
Instinctively her arms tightened around the child, but our eyes had locked and something passed between us. She knew I was trying to help and not hurt her child and slowly her arms lifted and she handed the child to me.
It took a lot of resolution for me to overcome the revulsion I could not help experiencing at the close sight of this dirty baby face and the rags covering its body. I tore the handkerchief in half, drenched it in the boiled water and started to clean up the tiny face, very gently, for the dirt was caked on it and I didn’t want to hurt the poor little one. Slowly the dirt lifted off the little face and miraculously its brown baby skin below was unmarked and smooth.
The little scrap of humanity I held in my arms was quiet and still and, I hoped, a little bit more comfortable. Uncannily the baby’s sightless eyes were fixed on mine in an unblinking stare as if its mind was piercing through to see me.
My ministrations were finished and I was looking at the tiny face cradled against my breast when the dark little face seemed to change subtly before my eyes. It suddenly felt as if the years had rolled back and once again I held my child — my own — protecting it, shielding it with my love to keep it from harm. I felt as if I held again this child of mine who is a grown woman now, with children of her own.
Here in the midday heat, surrounded by the misery of poverty and diseases of Africa, the years receded. I was young again, and all the hopes and aspirations I had dreamed of for my child whilst nursing her came floating back into my mind. It was a breathless moment — a moment suspended in time. Deep from within me welled up the thought: “It does not really matter whose child I hold — my own — my child’s — or a little bit of jetsam doomed right from the start of drawing breath to live a life of disease, pain, and misery.”
At that moment all I could feel was that I wanted to give to the child in my arms the love and protection I had given to my own child. All I wanted to do was to protect and sustain the life so helpless in my arms.
I rose — deeply shaken by the unexpected emotions coursing through me. As I stood in front of the young mother, the child still cradled in my arms, we looked at each other. A slow gentle smile lit her serious face and she held out her arms for her child. Slowly and reluctantly, the way she had handed me her baby a little while ago, I placed the baby in her arms.
Over the child’s body our eyes made it possible for us to communicate with each other. For a few seconds we were close . . . all gulfs created by civilizations and language bridged. We were simply two women — two mothers — understanding each other, brought together by the love we felt for a child, without a word being spoken.
(From Sunrise magazine, Spring 2007; copyright © 2007 Theosophical University Press)