Dispatch From the Field: Sadia, 'La Sterilisatrice'

"Sadia certainly leaves an impression and she is a force in this community as well as the hospital. Some say they can’t imagine it without her."

At least once a week, I go to the morning meetings at the hospital at 7am. One of the first times I went, I met Sadia. She is the Sterilisatrice for the hospital – a word that is almost impossible for me to say in French. I would say an accurate translation would be Sterilization Manager. 

Sadia is tall, probably around 5’10” and always dressed impeccably when not in her hospital scrubs. She has a huge welcoming smile and an easy way about her. When I first met her, I told her I was looking for a Centrafricaine name that starts with “L” since most people here have a hard time with my name: “Ok, Laxie! Great to meet you!” “No, it’s LExie.” “Ok. LAxie”. It was then that she named me Leila. There are a handful of people who call me Leila now.

Sadia has these beautiful, tailor-made African ensembles with incredible embroidery throughout. I recently asked her if she would be willing to take me into the market to shop for “pagne”, aka African fabric. We met on a Sunday near the high school, and she was resplendent in another incredible outfit. We walked through an intricate maze of stands and stalls with everything from smoked fish covered in flies to medication to onions to imported T-shirts from the USA with the American flag covering the entire front. The stalls are made from rough pieces of wood nailed together and boards across the top for the table. It is an infrequent site to see white people in this market and everyone there had to stop what they were doing to watch us walk by. “Bonjour!” kids would scream from different corners. I try my hand at Songo: “Baramo!”

Sadia knows everyone. Everyone greets her and the greetings go on for a while: How are you? How’s your family? Did you sleep well? She’s always chuckling when she’s talking to people and laughs easily with me. She speaks all the languages of this region and can communicate with anyone. When she shakes my hand, she holds it while she asks me how I’m doing. (I’ve noticed here that people hold your hand a little longer than I’m accustomed to in the U.S. and it’s so nice! I feel so welcome and it creates a connection. Sometimes I have to pull my hand away because I feel it’s inappropriate – ie. When one of the local doctors greeted me recently, he held my hand for what felt like 5 minutes but it was probably 10 seconds while we talked. People will just keep holding onto your hand for the entire conversation basically.)

We went to her favorite vendor, Abdul Kareem, and you would not believe how many choices he had. The pagnes were stacked on top of each other 5’ high. I would point out the tiny edge of a fabric I wanted to see 2’ down in the stack and he had to haul the load off to remove it. It’s crazy how heavy fabric becomes when you pile it high! I have since visited his shop many more times and have bought quite a few pagnes.

On Halloween, one of the other expats and I talked about doing something special for our patients. We decided to go to the hospital with a handful of balloons and entertain the kids. Sadia joined in the fun and was blowing up balloons and batting them around with the kids and the moms. We danced and skipped up and down the hospitalization tent while I sang “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain”. All the mamas were clapping their hands along with us. We were laughing the whole time. It was hysterical.

Over the months that I’ve been here, we’ve had several parties. Sadia and I are always the first ones to jump up and start dancing. Typically, after the party is over, we’ve already started planning the next one. Pretty much every time I see her, we’re talking about when to have the next party and for what occasion!

Sadia certainly leaves an impression and she is a force in this community as well as the hospital. Some say they can’t imagine it without her. I will always think of Sadia when I think of my mission in Bria.