One foot in front of the other

13 July 2010

On the evenings when meetings don’t run over and patients don’t arrive too late, I like to walk home from the office. It’s a golden walk, with the sun low in the sky behind me and my lengthening shadow ahead.

After leaving the office compound on the main street of Gweru, the town quickly peters out. My path takes me through the police camp, where I greet the clutch of children who come out to meet me. Then behind the Anglican Church. Sometimes I have the pleasure of hearing the choir practicing and I stop dead to listen. Then my route takes me behind the provincial hospital. I cut through a field of maize and turn and I’m on red earth. Now my path runs alongside the railway track and I’m nearly home.

Back in England, on my walk home from the Emergency Department, I would probably be trying to quantify my day. Separating the who from the what and adding how much. Confidently dividing the successes and the failures. Here in Africa, I don’t seem to be equipped with the correct tools for this task. I just don’t know how to take the measure of a day. So I just let the day slip through my mind and settle somewhere deep.

Today, I’m thinking about a generous gift of avocados from a woman who probably didn’t have food to spare. I’m thinking about the colour of a stillborn baby’s perfect feet and the shadow in the empty crook of her mother’s arms. The agonising and helpless journey we spent together in the back of the land cruiser. I’m thinking about the pleasure of being chosen by a child. Taking the offered hand, returning the smile. And realising suddenly that the tuberculosis medication is working and this little boy is miraculously, wonderfully, being restored to health and mischief.

As my mind drifts onto this path, it’s easy to forget that I’m actually in a race. To be home before dark is more challenging now winter has arrived. I don’t make life easy for myself either, as a weakness in me makes me chose the prettiest, not the fastest, route. Even when I arrive home breathless, on the brink of dusk, it seems worth it just to pass the trees jewelled with seed pods and blossom and avoid the noise and dust of the hectic Shurugwi road.

But still, I don’t know how to take the measure of a day. I don’t know whether simple gratitude for deep generosity is enough, when you can’t possibly return the favour. I don’t know whether just being present with a grieving mother is enough, when you can’t save her child who was born too early, born upside down. I don’t know whether rescuing one little toddler from an untimely death is enough, when the disease kills almost two million people a year.

I don’t know how to take the measure of a day. So I just let the day slip through my mind and settle somewhere deep. And I keep putting one foot in front of the other.