Last week, I spent one afternoon visiting patients with one of the councilors from our Mental Health program. Wow. You don’t answer “that was fun” when teammates ask how it went. The sessions were all in Kiluba, the main dialect here in Shamwana. While the ideas were translated into French for me by the councilor, you don’t need to understand the words to get their meaning. Pretty heavy stuff…
On the surface, Shamwana is all cheerful “Mazungo!” greetings as people busily go about their business. Life is hard but improving and it is easy to forget that real war was here a short 3 years ago. This was one of the first times I had stopped to really look. And when you look, you see the wrinkled hands and dirt under the toenails. You see that the toy is made from an old plastic jug on a string. You notice that her blouse used to be white…but is now gray and so thin its doesn’t conceal much. You realize she doesn’t even have flip-flops…and that life is not as easy as it appears.
The first stop
The lady was a bit older and although she seemed happy to see us, her eyes were tired and she looked tough. Hardened maybe. There was lots of activity in the yard and it seemed like she was running a daycare of sorts. We met outside under a towering mango tree and there were children playing everywhere.
…in 2005 she saw her mother killed by a soldier. It was purposefully done in front of her as a tactic of intimidation. She is still suffering from witnessing such brutality, the loss of her mother and the guilt from not being able to do anything to stop it.
I kept looking at the children. Partly because of the language but also as a distraction. Such a contrast. Rags for clothing and so dirty but totally engrossed in their playtime and completely oblivious to the pain she is in or the reason for our visit.
She had been depressed and was not sleeping at all. She didn’t even have the courage or will to work. She wasn’t really eating. This was MSF’s 7th visit and she has come a long way. Suggesting simple things like thinking about better times, surrounding herself with things she likes (the children!) and sharing her thoughts and feelings with others has helped. She still looks tired and there is a definite sadness in her eyes but she’s sleeping better and has started to go back to her fields. Although I didn’t really understand, she even laughed a few times during the session and I don’t think that happens too often for her.
One boy was busy making a small house of out chunks of wood left over from a recent construction project. He was completely engrossed by his task and there was an element of pride in his work…trying to get it just right. An older boy walked by and pushed over part of his toy house for fun. The smaller boy didn’t do or say anything…he didn’t even look up and just started to rebuild that section. Such is life, I suppose, here in the Congo…
The second visit was also to see a woman traumatized by the war. She was forced to flee and saw friends and neighbors killed. She is still unable to sleep because of reoccurring nightmares and is absolutely afraid that the war will come back. This was the councilors fourth visit and already things seemed to be moving in the right direction.
The final stop was the first follow-up visit for a new patient. She told us the story of how her husband was killed. The fighting had already started and they were fleeing. The soldiers shot randomly into the village and one of these stray bullets hit and killed him. Silent tears fell down her cheeks by the end. No translation was needed. We just listened…