Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Safe Place

Eritrea‘s culture is vibrant and its people diverse with 9 ethnic groups and a 50% split between self identifying Muslims and Christians. Across the courtyards of the fistula ward, bright cloths were hanging out to dry having been hand-washed to remove of the lingering stench of urine. The fistula wards were a place of healing and sisterhood. Sometimes the surgeries were successful, other times the women continued to leak because of the extent of scarring and damage. In the mornings, the doctors came in to examine the post-operative patients and the leaking women would turn on the sides or pull their blankets over the heads to hide their tears and disappointment. For these women, the head nurse (affectionately called “Sister”) and other patients provided comfort and encouragement- next time, maybe next time surgery would heal them.

The ward is a safe space for the women and on the last day of the surgical mission, the patients invited the team to a special coffee ceremony. We walked into the decorated ward, with flowers and grass carefully placed on the linoleum floors, and saw the women in their colorful shawls sitting around the coffee pots waiting eagerly for the doctors to take their seats. The ceremony deeply touched us because we were privileged to be included. The women danced to traditional Eritrean music, blaring from an old stereo and invited us to join them. We were pretty bad dancers, but then one of the doctors managed to hook up her I-pod and played some Beyonce and Black-Eyed Peas- we explained “this is our music” and were met with blank stares and giggles.

Luckily, I brought my digital camera to the ward this day, and I started to snap pictures of the patients, showing them on the screen how they looked. As I took more and more snapshots, the atmosphere in the ward became less formal as everyone wanted their pictured taken. The smiles and laughter humbled the team and we realized many of them had never seen their pictures.


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