Friday, May 16, 2008

A Blue Bundle

A children’s hospital.

Down the concrete ramp from Ward 2 (general inpatient) to the main entrance comes a group of six young men. Barely more than teenagers, they walk in a loose V formation like soldiers – in uniforms of t-shirts and jeans – to battle. They carry an air of solemn concentration, duty-bound, and the cloud of silence around them pushes back the din of the hospital to a dim distant hum.

One of the boyish men, a few steps in front of the others, carries in his arms a child-sized bundle wrapped in a blue blanket. He doesn’t look at the bundle. His eyes are dry.

Behind this group come two women, also young. Their gaze is riveted on the men in front of them, oblivious to their surroundings. One of the women wails and clutches her breasts, grasping for the child who nursed there. Her face is haggard, and you know she has been crying for hours or days.

The procession passes through the doorway and into the glare of the courtyard. Past parents toting sick children. Past student nurses gathered in the shade. Past security guards and drivers and curious onlookers.

For the small group of mourners, however, all that is far away. The traffic of the hospital and of the street beyond belong to the world of the living. Theirs is the grim task of accompanying the dead.

A dented white pick-up truck waits for them just outside the entrance. The father climbs into the front seat with his precious bundle. The child is small enough to lay across his lap, even with the bulky blanket. I find myself wondering how old she is – was – but shake my head and push the thought aside. Too young.

The rest of the men – brothers, cousins, comrades-in-arms – climb into the back of the truck. They reach down to the mother, to help her up behind them, but she is trembling with grief. Her leg buckles when she steps on the bumper. It is all too much.

As the truck drives away, I can still see the small blue bundle through the front window. I imagine where they are going, what comes next. A tiny casket. A simple gravestone. A memorial service. A lifetime of sorrow. “I had three children, and two are alive.”

I turn away. It is all too much.

To support the children's hospital portrayed in this posting, please visit the Welbodi Partnership.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Sunday is...

… the church drummer warming up at 9 a.m.

… a sermon in my bedroom.

… a lazy breakfast of papaya and mangoes on the balcony, or chocolate croissants and smoothies at Bliss Patisserie down the street.

… the long drive to Bureh Town: over the mountain, past the waterfall, through villages that once were refugee camps and towns that once were villages, past scenery so stunning it takes your breath, again, for the thousandth time.

… sun and surf and freshly-caught barracuda for lunch.

… outings, outings, and more outings: a caravan of buses, taxis, jeeps and poda-podas bound for beaches out of town; stereos blaring, bodies crammed in every available space, and clinging to roof-racks and bumpers. On the beach, speakers piled high, music drowning the waves and the seabirds, revelers bumping and grinding, helped by free-flowing alcohol and the occasional joint. Attention-seekers climb atop rocks, then seduce the beach with their swaying hips and chiseled bodies. Others splash in the waves and chase each other – squealing and shouting – across the stark white sand, against the most beautiful backdrop imaginable.

… back in town, an evening walk on Lumley Beach, where Freetown gathers each Sunday to promenade. Playboys plying the beach road in sports cars and Hummers; boys playing football in bare feet and boxer shorts; girls dancing in the sand; children chasing the waves; lovers walking hand-in-hand.

Friday is...

... the call to prayer.

... the hum, the murmur, the humble din of beggars outside a mosque.

... noble men in caps and robes.

... statuesque women in their Friday Africana, stunning from their elaborate head scarves to their pointed heels, wrapped in eye-dazzling color, texture, and pattern.

... walking through the crowded East-End streets en route to the Children's Hospital, dodging motorized poda-podas and hand-drawn omalankis, the former packed tight with bodies, the latter piled high with goods. Tip-toeing through sludge and garbage and over open gutters, ducking under panbodi zinc and 10-foot wooden poles carried recklessly atop the heads of quick-moving bodies. Sweating and sweating and sweating under the searing mid-day sun.

... walking back through markets teeming with Friday salesmanship: a wall of vendors flooding the streets, channeling pedestrian commuters through a narrow gauntlet of flashing goods and shouted prices. A bit of cardboard hung with cheap gold-painted earrings; a basin of ice-cold water packed in plastic bags; a woman’s skirt (slightly used) for $0.30; a hundred metal spoons jangled to grab attention; an armful of fake designer sunglasses; a sequined handbag; a pickled pig’s foot; a live chicken.

... suffocating traffic, where the crippled man with legs twisted from polio pulling himself along on his hands and knees moves faster than you in your car.

... a cold shower to wash off the day.

.... a beer at sunset at Ramadas Beach Bar, with the hills of the city behind and the waves before you, and your bare feet buried in the sand.