Notice the Beautiful Things

A recent increase in rainfall altered one of my routine morning runs a bit. I arrived at the river, which I usually cross easily by stepping on the largest stones jutting out of the water, only to find that the water had risen and my usual path was obscured by rushing water. I watched as men and women of all ages walked across the river through the water. I really didn’t want to get my running shoes wet. Soggy running shoes are fine at the end of the run, but I wasn’t even half way through yet. Suddenly, I spotted my savior. I man of 50 years or so had been standing on the edge of the river peering hesitantly at the other side. He was carrying what looked like a couple of very heavy bags, one in each hand. Just when I expected him to turn around and admit defeat, he started across the river. He hopped from stone to stone and was completely dry when he made it across. All I had to do was follow his footsteps.

I laughed a little to myself as I started across the river in the shadow of the man with the bags. My shoes stayed dry. I never listen to music or podcasts when I run, so I was alone with my thoughts as I continued on. The man from the river lingered in my mind and reminded me of how often we discount those from whom we have the most to learn. We approach a situation and immediately start sizing it up, assuming that we are equipped to determine the best way to proceed. I spent close to 5 minutes standing on the edge of the river attempting various paths across before I looked up and realized that I could learn from the unassuming old man next to me; a man who has likely lived with this river every day of his life, rainy season after rainy season.

Working for the summer in a country scarred by wars and pervasive poverty, I have often felt overwhelmed. The man with the bags reminded me of a lesson I have gleaned from a number of my grad school classes. People are resilient. Learn from their resiliency. When I see a person or persons facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle I immediately start thinking about how they should maneuver through or around it. Instead I must sit and watch. I do myself, and them a disservice if I fail to notice what is already working.

As I walk through a clinic here in Ethiopia, I am tempted to focus on the lack of running water, the unreliable electricity, the seeming disarray, and the fact that most of the patients probably should have presented for care days ago. Then I watch a pregnant woman receive care. I watch her HIV test turn negative and her blood pressure read within normal limits. I watch the midwife warn her about the danger signs of pregnancy and childbirth and instruct her to return to the clinic as soon as possible if she develops any of them. I watch a nurse hold a sick child and prescribe antibiotics in order to hasten his return to a healthy state. She may be saving his life. I think to myself, “there is a lot that is working here.” I want to make it look “pretty,” but in reality there are a lot of beautiful things happening right in front of me. I can hear my professor’s voice saying, “notice those beautiful things.” Okay, I’ll try. The next time I come to an impassable river, I’ll look to those around me and notice how they are getting across before I decide I need to build a bridge.

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A beautiful woman at the Dabat clinic.

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A beautiful face at the Dabat clinic.

Thyme

Ethiopia FB-860I just returned from the Simien Mountains where my soul found the expected respite that has always greeted me when I wander into the mountains. Breathtaking views, playful monkeys, elegant hawks, vibrant flowers, fresh breezes, cleansing rains, and the smell of wild thyme, which speckled the hillsides, were our companions. I found myself wishing I could bottle the smell of the thyme. My virologist friend, who traveled with me, assured me that people are working on making that very thing possible, but the technology just isn’t there yet. Plenty of pictures and videos were taken, but those things never quite capture the entirety of an experience. The physical moment of being present in a place can never be fully detained. Mountains have always played an important role in my life. From family vacations to summer jobs I have sought their company. On the rare occasions when I meditate, I often find myself trying to find my way into the mountains where I am afforded clarity of thought and peace of mind. It’s a place I know well because I have been there often.

During my down time I am reading a book called The Plague by Albert Camus. It is about a small port town in Algeria that is stricken with the plague. At one point in the book, the town’s doctor who is charged with fighting the incurable disease, is listening to the radio and hears the emotional cries of cities and towns, near and far, ringing out their support for those confined within the walls of the town. In response, the doctor’s thoughts point out the great chasm that separates those who are suffering within the city’s walls from those who sit comfortably outside of the sufferers’ world. He speaks of the, “incapacity of every man truly to share in suffering that he cannot see.”

We live in a world filled with suffering. Suffering people can be found in every corner of every place. During my quiet time in the mountains I found myself reflecting on the value of experiences where I have been afforded the opportunity to sit with those who are suffering. In the same way that a picture will never bring me the full experience of sitting on that mountain top, a news story or a book will never tell the whole story of suffering. We are incapable of comprehending suffering from a distance. I have to touch it and smell it in order to recognize its complexity and have my thoughts and actions changed by my encounter with it. Time and space may explain the distance between ourselves and the suffering of the world, but we also have a choice. We can choose to see it, to be affected by it, to be changed by its reality.

My thoughts as I left the mountain were dominated by thankfulness. I am thankful for the opportunity to see not only the suffering but also the incredible resiliency of the people here in Ethiopia. My hope is that my eyes will remain open to both the suffering and resiliency of all those with whom I come into contact, whether half way around the world, or right in downtown Tacoma.

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Taking in the view and enjoying the monkeys.

 

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Girls in Addis playing futbol.

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The end of a church service in Lalibela.

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Smile!

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Beautiful church in Lalibela.

It is worth it.

Her age is 20 years. The skin on her face is dark with a golden hue, and is as smooth as well churned butter. She is shy, but I can see a fierceness burning beneath her averted gaze and sweet smile. I feel awkward asking her questions but there is so much I want to know. What are her days and nights like? What tasks consume her time? What thoughts consume her mind? What are her worries and cares? What are her passions and loves?

The mother is at the Azezo Health Center for an antenatal care visit. The child growing inside of her took form 28 weeks ago and this is her first visit. You can see the love she has for the child in the way she strokes her belly with her hand. You can see her love for the child when you imagine her trudging an hour through the mud to cover the ground between her rural dwelling in the hills and the health center where she seeks care for herself and her baby. You know it is not easy for her to come. She has another little one at home to care for. Her daily responsibilities are vast and consuming. She came because she knows it is good.

The midwife asks her questions about her health history. “When was your last menstrual period? Do you have any chronic illnesses? Have you ever had malaria? Do you use an impregnated bed net? Can we test you for HIV?” She answers with single words. “Yes, no…” When she lies down on the exam table the midwife manipulates her swollen belly as she attempts to determine the lie of the child, and estimate the gestational age. The small room is crowded and two eager midwifery students gaze on and drool over every word their wise teacher offers them. I know what it’s like to want to know everything, to want to learn it all right now. But don’t forget about the person lying in front of you, I find myself thinking. Be present with her. Be curious about her.

After she is done in the exam room I walk in silence with the mother through the waiting room filled with cries and coos as mothers holding and feeding their brand new infants wait in the immunization line. We walk outside and across the muddy grounds, which try to steel my slip on shoe from my feet once or twice. We arrive at the window of an adjacent building. The lack of a common language prevents us from sharing words, but we communicate with touches and smiles. She offers her blood and urine to the laboratory technician for examination then sits outside on a covered bench to wait for the results. It’s warm and sunny and she invites me to sit next to her. Kefyalew, our trusty translator arrives on the scene and we begin a brief conversation. She delivered her first baby at her mother’s home as is customary in her village. I say a quick prayer of thanks that the delivery was free of complications and that mother and child are alive today. She says she wants to deliver her second baby at the health center and I offer my encouragement in support of her decision.

Her lab results come and we walk back to the exam room to present the completed lab slip to the midwife who has a few more questions and teaching points and then she is free to walk back home through the mud. We say good-bye and I head back to the University Hospital in a bajaj.

This mother carried her pregnant belly an hour through the mud and postponed the duties that will surely await her when she returns home, for a 30-minute visit at the health center. Is it worth it? Does she really need to make the journey again in 6 weeks for a similar visit? She is healthy and her baby appears to be healthy. There was nothing abnormal in her labs. She would probably be fine delivering at home by herself again. But what if they did find something? What if her blood pressure was high, or the baby was breech, or her HIV test was positive… She must come back. I pray she comes back. I pray she tells her friends and neighbors to come. I pray this prayer on behalf of all those whose lives have been altered due to the lack of this care. I pray that the work I am involved in here sees the realization of its intended effect, and brings more women and children to health centers for this precious care. Is it worth it? It is certainly worth it.

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A fierce mother seeking care for herself and her unborn child.

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A group of priests and religious women who have been trained in the importance of ANC, HIV testing, PMTCT and related topics. They refer pregnant women to the local health centers for care. Their passion for their work is inspirational.

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A healthy mother and her baby.