Dedicated to Alexis Murphy, on the Second Anniversary of her murder,
August 3, 2015
Dedicated to Alexis Murphy, on the Second Anniversary of her murder, August 3, 2015
August tomatoes, diced raw onion, balsamic vinegar, and a gin & tonic with lime: these pungent savory flavors were my chosen banquet upon reaching home yesterday, after 18 hours in the air, and longer, in Ndola, Johannesburg, and Washington airports. Three o'clock in the afternoon here, but my body clock chimed to the Tropic of Capricorn.
The wormhole of long travel and the interstellar dimensions of ending a medical mission trip make a sleepy soup of my mind where unpunctuated thoughts mix like swallowed bites of food: the cats still love me the yard needs mowing I want to sleep don't forget your malaria prophylaxis should I cut up more tomatoes Alexis was abducted and murdered two years ago seventeen she was only seventeen.
Last year, on the 50th anniversary of their national Independence, I traveled for the first time to Zambia, Africa, with a medical mission group called OMNI, Orphan Medical Network International. OMNI has leased 60 scrubby acres for 100 years, and has built the OMNI School, currently educating 206 mostly single- and double-orphans, feeding them one ample and balanced meal a day, teaching them the national curriculum, as well as hygiene, nutrition, environmental stewardship, and community service.
The most beautiful building on campus is The Morgan Harrington Educational Wing.
In Zambia, July is Winter, cool mornings threaded by bulbul and parrot song. The OMNI School closes for two weeks so that its staff--Violet, Lioness, Gift, Roydah, Cynthia, Jane, Kidron, Kelvin, Stanley, under the leadership of Headmaster Teddy Kasongo--can all travel with the American team members.
Each staff member comes with his or her story. Karen met one, years ago, at our triage station. Every person in line is interviewed, respectfully and patiently, with name and notes taken meticulously, before being sent on to a doctor, the gynecology tent, a pediatrician, the dentist, pharmacy, eyeglasses, or wound care, where I work.
A young mother named Jane had complained modestly of a headache. Any other aches?, Karen inquired. "My arms and chest and back are also aching," Jane admitted. "May I take a look?", Karen asked, with stethoscope, prepared to diagnose underlying tuberculosis, HIV, malaria, gonorrhea, all four perhaps, or malnutrition.
Instead, Karen found a different underlying cause. Jane was covered in bruises.
Karen did a home visit, and found Jane lived in a dirt-floor hut with her six starving children, no food anywhere. Her husband beat her regularly. He had children by two other women and girlfriends beside.
We know so, because when Karen asked Jane if she would like to get out of the marriage and be safe, and Jane said yes, two things happened:
1. Karen brought Jane and her six children to OMNI. All of her children now attend school there, and Jane works as OMNI School's lead cook, where she lives on grounds in her own house, pays her own rent, has access to clean water, and lives with dignity and hope. She is a beautiful woman, has friends, is respected, and she sees her children, who respect her, living and being educated.
2. Karen's bodyguard investigated, found, and arrested Jane's brutal husband. He is in prison for his brutality, and the Judge granted Jane an immediate divorce. Karen said OMNI paid the divorce proceedings fee, and that it was the best $12 OMNI ever spent.
All of OMNI's teachers are outraged by gender violence, and wear shirts that say so. As Vice President of Help Save the Next Girl, I am deeply grateful for OMNI's intolerance of any violence, especially for endemic domestic violence, which teems in Zambia where poverty and alcoholism abound, as abduction and sexual predation and murder lounge here in the States, as we know too well in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where we forget that a big lumbering behemoth who grabs college girls in restaurants and lifts strangers off the floor is not cute or silly but is in fact an unchecked sociopathic serial killer hiding in plain sight.
We told the stories of Alexis Murphy, Morgan Harrington, RG, and Hannah Graham at our long dinner tables at night, but also to Zambian patients, and we put Alexis and Help Save the Next Girl shirts on women and children who walked out of our clinics back out into the deep bush with these stories in their hearts. The stories are not just of murder, but of our challenge to violence, our outrage that any person should ever be harmed, the fierce passionate legacy we uphold for all our savaged girls.
We travel to clinics with three armed guards wearing full-cartridge AK47s, as well as with Karen's professional personal bodyguard.
A friend asked why we need guards.
The answer is that Zambian poverty is a disaster.
With our bus load of thirty duffles packed with valuable medical and humanitarian supplies, and westerners carrying passports and big dollars converted or not to kwacha, to a criminal or a desperado, in a place of no or almost worthless roads, where 37 is the average life expectancy, and there are only hand-made charcoal, potatoes, and maize in the thatched hut, and a bar of soap or a blanket, much less any medicine, are beyond possibility, our rich convoy looks like a glistening dream of black market commodities.
Together, the OMNI teachers, the medical staff, and the guards conduct eight full, free, orderly medical clinics.
We return to the same deeply rural or terribly impoverished slum sites every year, and provide the only medical care that these 3,500 to 4,000 patients see in that year.
In these field clinics, we set up tables and tarps, diagnose, extract teeth, provide rehydration bottles, give injections and courses of medication and vitamins, bathe and bandage horrifying tropical ulcers and fungus and leprosy, as well as provide humanitarian aid. We fit shoes and slings and crutches, give toothbrushes and combs, soap and washcloths, blankets and knives, money or transport if someone needs to get to the hospital, and rice and salt.
People know we are coming. Some walk for days to be in our long lines. We work into the night by headlamp and stay until we have seen every single person who has arrived for help, hundreds and hundreds a day.
These are the people unreached by whatever corporate charities may keep offices and wave flags. These are the regions where aid has to be delivered and distributed by hand, because corruption always stops the trickle down. These are the conditions which test the deepest tenets of medicine and love, where compassion sometimes has to substitute for cure.
When our patients are late-stage unmedicated HIV positive, for example, or when they are tubercular, or when they have cholera, we treat their open wounds and filthy bodies with the tenderness, love, and ease they have come to expect does not exist.
One HIV-positive woman arrived in our wound care station last week with mastoiditis. You must picture that half of her face, her cheek, jaw and neck, were massively deformed, exactly as if a full-sized football had grown inside of her face. Her right eye had turned the sorrowful periwinkle blue of blindness, and her open wound under her ear reached to the base of her skull, oozing infectious pus. One of our doctors later said, thank God she has no access to mirrors, because seeing her own deformity, she would be crushed.
What crushed me about her was her demeanor. She was the gentlest, most polite and well-spoken lady I met in all the clinics this year, and she smiled softly and curtsied with perfect manners. I knew that her occasions for being spoken to with kindness were probably completely finished when we gave her all the gifts we had and told her how happy we were to meet her, and said Lesa Akupâle to one another, smiling and waving: May God bless you.
Her name was Minerva, the Roman name for the Goddess of Wisdom and the Patron Goddess of the Arts. Soon, her swelling will make it impossible for Minerva to swallow, and she will die. She will be pushed or dragged to deeper bush, and the crows and flies will be her pall bearers. Then, Minerva will be even more forgotten than she is now. The geometric patterns of her gauzy old shitange cloth will fade in the Zambian sun. Her existence will be as lost as the design of ancient seashells whose scattered traces are grains of sand on ocean floors.
We also met patients this year named Cinderella, Doubt, Anxious, Laughing, and Harrington. I feel bad for Doubt and Anxious.
Death walks in rural Zambia on prehistoric legs, scaly and spurred, and, with no other formality, cock-a-doodle-doos the villagers' names.
But Certain Death, so uncontested and cocky in rural Zambia, can be, for a time, thwarted. The question is, Why bother?
Shoo the rooster; he is soon to return. So why bother?
The first patient I ever treated in Zambia was named Maxim.
It's an uncommon word and an even more uncommon name. The word means a wise saying, a proverb.
I met Maxim in July, 2014. He came on crutches and he brought with him the stench of Death.
He sat before me in 2014 on a blue plastic chair we had brought.
We spoke through Violet, who translated.
His left leg had been amputated. It had been mostly burned off in a fire. I could see from the way his old pant leg wavered that the amputation was very high.
But the problem was wrapped in filthy cloths, what seemed miles of them. He unwrapped and unwrapped this mummification, and beneath, o God, his foot was an apocalypse of infection. My first patient in Zambia: the contagion of the continent landed all in Maxim's right foot.
He was rotting alive.
He asked for medicine to commit suicide. I remember Violet put her hand on his shoulder and said, Don't say that, brother. We are here to help you.
So I poured three inches of clean water and liquid soap into a basin and placed Maxim's foot in the cool water. I bathed him for a long time. Peroxide made snow banks of his decubiti.
A doctor came in and showed me how to abrade the massive amounts of dead ulcerated cauliflower outcroppings surrounding what looked like purple gunshot wounds all over and on the underside of his remaining foot.
It is difficult work to razor away parts of someone.
I dried his foot and packed those ugly holes, 15 of them, with triple antibiotic ointment and gauze. I wrapped his foot with bandage. I placed a sock over the bandage and a shoe over the sock.
Violet explained the antibiotic pills, the vitamins, the soap and extra bandages. He left with food and money and a blanket and new crutches. Maxim left with skepticism in his eyes. I could tell he still wanted to kill himself.
Obviously, I would never see him again.
So imagine my surprise last week when Violet rushed up to me. Before she spoke, I said, "He is here?" "Yes! I saw him in line!"
Violet led me to Maxim. We took him out of the long line and brought him to clinic.
He was not smiling.
But when I had gloved up and unbandaged his wounds, there was no stench. The same toes were still missing, but there wasn't a single open wound. I couldn't believe my eyes.
I was having to fight crying. The care last year had been enough. Maxim was alive.
I was asking Violet to translate and she was, as I bathed Maxim again, explaining to him how I had thought of him every day for a year. How I had feared I would never see him again. How I remembered what he said.
He wasn't smiling.
We loaded him up with supplies. Gil revamped his canes and packed him a canvas bag of supplies, double rice, lots of medicine and everything we could think to give him. Violet translated. He scowled.
Finally, taking his crutches, he spoke. He was angry. "You buy me maize, too," he commanded. Violet was embarrassed to translate his Bemba, but I knew what he was saying before I understood the words.
So I asked Violet to walk away from the crowd with me and Maxim.
After we were away from the hundreds, with Violet translating, I said to Maxim:
"Maxim, when I saw you, my heart was overjoyed. I really thought of you every day for the last year. I thought you might have died. You wanted to die.
I never forgot you. You were my first patient in Zambia. Now, I have treated hundreds of patients. I still never forgot you.
We prepared the biggest bag of gifts for you that we have given anyone.And back there in clinic, you never returned a word or smiled at me.You were scowling and angry the whole time. You just wanted maize. Nothing I said mattered to you."
I took his hand, and still looking straight at him, and with Violet translating expressively, I said:
"Maxim, I had already put money in my pocket for you. I had it for you before you asked. Here it is. It is more than you expect.
You looked at me, back there, only with doubt, but right now I want you to keep looking straight into my eyes.
I love you. You may as well be my son. I have worried about your health for a year. I have cried about your suffering.
You brought only doubt in your heart for me. When you are not the least glad to see me again, you break my heart.
Worse, when you look at this world only through doubt, you will never see love.
I don't blame for for your anger, and I don't pretend I know all of your suffering, but you and I are two human beings, who happened to meet because of the fifteen years that this great team has flown across the ocean to find our distant suffering neighbors, our forgotten brothers and sisters, and I can tell you, Maxim: I love you. I'm sorry if you can not see my love."
Maxim's eyes responded before he spoke.
"Oh Mama, if I could fall to my knees, I would. I am blessed, twice blessed. The medicine your team brought last year healed me. I no longer want to die. My life is hard. It will always be hard. But today, you have opened my eyes. Forgive me. Now I see your love, and I will ask God to bless you and to bring you back again next year."
We stood smiling at each other for a long time like son and mother.
And Gil Harrington is right: you can bet our tears were the same color.
Oh Alexis Murphy, 17 years old when two years today, in the gentle mountains of our beautiful state of Virginia, where the natural blessings are so staggering that it is incomprehensible that we learn to take them all for granted, you stopped to fill your car with gas.
The disgusting eyes of a predator and murderer landed on your beauty.
We found him. We convicted him. He will never harm again.
But we are all bereft.
When our girls are abducted, beaten, afraid, raped, murdered, our tears are the same color, and our pain is the same pain.
May Help Save the Next Girl put knowledge and compassion in young women and young men everywhere in our world.
May all the age-old forms of what the Buddhists call the Three Defiling Poisons, ignorance, greed, and hatred, be treated with their antidotes.
For greed, generosity. For hatred, empathy. For ignorance, education.
Alexis, you would be so proud of your legacy, so proud of how Help Save the Next Girl is working in this world.
We have so much work to do. But we are incredibly strong in our work.
Don't ever doubt our love.
I've seen doubt and love come face to face.
Love is stronger.
Jane Lillian Vance
Vice President, Help Save the Next Girl,
and Morgan Harrington's professor in the last Spring of her life
•••If you would like to help us raise the $1,000 to build the large round traditional thatched gathering hut at the OMNI school, which will make shade in front of the Morgan Harrington Educational building, please send your contribution marked 2015 OMNI hut, or if you would like to sponsor a child's education at OMNI School for $1 a day, write to Chriss Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.