Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Helping helpers in Africa

I’m haunted by the face of a woman I thought I knew. She is a patient at a maternal health clinic where I volunteer. Most of the women are recovering from surgery. She was there, I thought as a grandmother. Her face echoed decades to me and I have been treating her as an elder. Yesterday, I was told she was there as as returned patient waiting to have a C-section following her fistula surgery so she could have a baby. I was amazed and asked my friend to inquire her age, how fertile was she? She is 22. 

This has become a global blog. On Facebook the Myalgia Mommies link posts the recent Mom blogs and occasionally inspiring thoughts. For now the blog is about living with chronic pain really anywhere in the world. The answers are the same. For me it has been to become invested in helping others to get outside of my circumstances and pain. (Living abroad was also a strategic move.  Here we have gained the ability to hire local help for basic household chores like preparing meals and cleaning. For me that has increased my circle of concern, more about that later). 

For our year of service in Niamey,  Niger we had an annual holiday and chose to spend it in India instead of returning to the U.S.; we are fortunate to have family there and our visit was wrapped in the warmth of their hospitality and love. The difference in the culture granted me different status. The pace of Life in India suits me. I felt wonderful but gained weight. I could live there easily and be content. 

Back in our lives in West Africa, I've was immediately thrown into a situation about access to care how it changes the course of a life. 

When we returned home from India our part-time cook, Mary, who we adore, was waiting in the kitchen for us first thing Monday morning. Mary usually doesn't arrive until after one and she was in the kitchen before we made coffee, sitting on a chair, upset and hunched over and asking for our help. The left side of her face was hurting her and she couldn't open her eye. She was having horrible headaches. 

The previous week she had awoken with a terrible pain in her head and couldn't open her eye. Her husband told her she slept on it funny and not to worry. She waited two days before going to the National Hospital where they gave her eye drops that did nothing. So she returned to the National Hospital the next day and they gave her a medicine that made her sick. Now she had come to us. 

it was five days post siezer/stroke incident and she was still in immediate pain. A friend of mine here is a part-time ophlathmologist at local clinic and sent her to the specialty cliic. There she was given a medication which when it was translated and checked came out to be a US veterinarian medicine. It was at least an analgesic. It was not the steroids that she needed. Here in Niamey it would be difficult to get her the diagnosis let alone care that she needed. 

We loved Mary because she gave us constant updates about her family in Ghana. Mary is past retirement age even by Nigérian standards. Her sons are in Ghana where both her parents are alive in their 90’s. She has two surviving brothers who also live in Ghana and between them a tribe of nieces and nephews: some of whom had lived with her for a few years through an Africa cousin exchange program that makes sense to me. Mary and her husband, who is half Nigerian and teaches at the university, are here for the economic opportunity.

Mary is only a part time cook who comes in the afternoon to prepare a meal for us and tell us a story about people in Niamey or news from Ghana. She had worked at the Embassy and the American School and was full of opinions. She was better than talk radio for me and I love her dearly. 

It immediately occurred to me that Ghana has better medicine than Niger and she has her entire family there to help her. The next day Mary was on a bus to Ghana and has since been seen and stabilized. Her health is good but she still can’t open her eye. We’ve spoken a few times, she calls for updates on the children and to thank me for helping her. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be sick in Niger with no resources. 
After Mary left, I had to make dinner every night and we had a different kind of pasta four nights in row. Some things never change. 

Lately, I’ve finally had a bit of free time to devote to doing what makes me happy. I’ve been doing some volunteer work at a women rehabilitation center. It turns out the best thing for me to do is to use my skills to help others in a way that lets me hold babies. Seeing these young women recovering from traumatic births or the loss of a baby and moving forward with life is inspiring and I want to help them however I can. It makes me feel blessed and puts my problems in perspective. 

Enjoy this photo of me holding a baby. I can't pronounce his Housa name let alone begin to spell it. He and his mother came to the center after he was delivered via cesarian section at the government hospital. They have both done well recovering. I love him. 

Epilogue, Edited September 26, 2017. 

Mary called from Ghana today. She wanted me to know that she was doing well and had finally started treatment and her eye was opening. I tried to ask her if she had a diagnosis or what the doctors told her; it is frustrating to get information out of Mary. Her responses are "God Bless, I am well, it's not what you thought it was. Thank you!" It also reminds me of trying to talk to any elderly relative about a medical condition that they don't fully understand. She is well. These last few weeks her sons were still home from school so she's been with her boys. The schools in Africa start first week in October, her sons are in University in Ghana.

Below is Mary covered in my children the day she left for Ghana.

Monday, June 26, 2017

My Butterfly Effect

One of the fun things about being a parent is that you can teach your children facts and reality as you perceive them. I have named our new home in Africa "La Maison Des Papillons" (The House of Butterflies) and am proceeding to teach them a completely incorrect version of the Butterfly Effect. 

Life in Africa has been a daily struggle and adventure. I have taken the opportunity to create my own butterfly effect of small acts of kindness and goodwill to try and always teach by example. 

Initially, we basically stayed within the walls of our house following strict security guidelines and what we were told about our neighborhood. In this time I decorated our metal interior doors and the wrought iron stair rail with dozens of lifelike and life sized butterflies to remind my daughter of home (she had a butterfly room and we used to visit the butterfly pavilion at the local Museum of Life and Science on a weekly basis)  and break up the whiteness of our new embassy provided house. When we did go out I try to smile at everyone and greet each person I see with a smile and "Bon Jour" or "Bon Soir" depending on the time of day. 

In our first month here I met an artist, Boubacar Djibo, who has a small metal shack where he sells his paintings at one end of our street. He was patient with my broken French and we found a way to communicate. Boubacar loves Niger and it is reflected in all of his paintings of local scenes and nature. He wants the rest of the world to see the joy and beauty here. I asked him to come and paint a mural in our living room; now we have large trees, some bright flowers and two large butterflies adorning the walls. My children were enthralled by our artist in residence and painted along with him as they rediscovered their love of art. 

In an earlier post I described how one of the first plants I recognized to fill my new garden with was a lantana, so we have a butterfly garden. I finally had an open house and in the invitation told everyone that we lived in "La Maison Des Papillons." Our first party was also a showcase of Boubacar's recent works to support the artist and share some of the bright colors with all in our acquaintance. I also printed out the wikipedia definition of "the butterfly effect" and scattered it on coffee tables. 

As each day brings whatever new challenge or pain for me, I try to be as relentlessly positive and friendly to those around me as I see so many other people who struggle to survive.  That is the challenge of living in Niger: we are surrounded by profound poverty. Outside our walls are naked children. When I drive around the city, children swarm my car every time I am stopped in the chaos of traffic. I try to keep extra bars, candy or change to always give them. When I don't have anything I smile and apologize. I never ignore them or pretend they aren't there. I also can't stay home; somehow I still need to go to the store everyday for milk, juice or bread. Now, when I run this errand I am grateful of the luxury of affording whatever food or whim my children have and being able to quickly meet that need. 

I've tried to unlock the city by driving around and being courageous. Others in my position have retreated to their homes but I want to understand where we are and in each interaction give a positive impression of Americans who are compassionate and good. We have a military presence in Niger and a travel warning that had scared away the tourists that were one of the main sources of income for many different sectors. If shopping for handicrafts can be a force of good then I am a superhero. With the help of a missionary friend I ventured into the local fabric markets and have had long skirts made.  It only took one assisted trip before I had befriended a few merchants and have since returned numerous times myself and with others, my daughter has a wardrobe of new dresses. The bright fabrics are addictive, I love to buy them but lack the vision to design interesting things to make with them so for now am hoarding fabric. 

We have found an orphanage to help, they are on Facebook at REMAR Niger. Initially the trips were planned by someone at the embassy but she has moved on and now the activity is mine to plan. When we arrive the children line up and sing to us, in order of size the rock back and forth while bursting with a hymnal. The local law prevents Americans from adopting. Last month I prepared for our trip by purchasing candy, a bushel of mangoes and printing out sheets of Maya Angelou and Serena Williams to color. I also found a French translation of the poem “Still I Rise" and printed out several copies for the older girls. After the children sang to us one of the older girls read the poem and the everyone colored a picture. On a previous trip when we gave them bunnies to color they gave us back the pages at the end of the visit. This time they focused on coloring a picture of a woman who looked like them and wrote famous words with reverence and concentration. As they finished I noticed them slipping away to put the finished pictures in their private hiding spots to treasure, no one offered to give us back their finished work. 

Niger has recently been rated the worst country to be a female child. I don't want to blog about the sadness I have witnessed. Each day I try through my actions to send ripples of a little joy and inspiration. 

Here I have a gardener, a nanny who helps with the housework and a lovely woman who comes to make dinner. I hoped that this help would give me space to rest and feel better. It may be the heat (average temp last month was 110) or that I still wake at 5:30 to make pancakes and interact with my children, but I find that I am overcome by fatigue and pain every afternoon. Fortunately, I can sleep for a few hours. 

A decade ago when I was very sick, a family member asked "what would you do if you lived in Africa?" trying to imply that my fibromyalgia wasn't real and that as a twenty something I needed to "tough it out" for the sake of the family. Now I know what I would do in Africa. I keep a positive outlook, take care of my children first, and help as much as I can before the pain and fatigue drag me into bed. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Valentines from Africa

It's been a few years since my traditional Valentines Day blog. 

Even in Africa my tree is still up. I haven't managed to organize my usual mailing this year. Instead, I’ve been inspired to write poetry again lately and I’ve decided to share it here as my Valentine’s Day gift to you. The first poem was inspired by our new life as an Embassy family living in Niger.  We are strangers in a strange land. So I wrote this poem about kindness: 

The Feather of Kindness

A feather fell from one of my dear ones cages
“An Angel is near.” she said with a smile of love

She sees feathers everywhere.

I found a pile of feathers in our new home

Are angels everyday acts of grace by friends?

I was profoundly grateful.

We saw a feather on the playground 
She said: “Don’t touch that, it’s filthy!”

Did I miss your kindness?

We try to do our daily act of good

to help who we can and those I love

I find feathers everyday.

Here in this desert Oasis I have seen such wonderful

exotic birds, I can’t wait to explore...

What feathers have you found?

This second poem is my gift to everyone. Especially myself. 

The Bubbles of Forgiveness 

Forgiveness is like Champagne 
when you truly feel it and let go of
all those knots of fury into light
and then it just bubbles and bubbles 

and floats away

The euphoric feeling of bubbles 
Reaching like a child to hold forgiveness
Laughing at how easy all the anger 
was to simply let go, like so many

Bubbles on the wind

Champagne impedes dementia they’ve
found and so I’ve put my faith as always 
in the magic of science
I only drink Champagne and always savor it for the bubbles

I’m believe this forgiveness will have some 
Salubrious effect on my mind, but I 
Know that bubbling away that anger was good for my soul

Bring on more Champers!

Happy Valentines Day, please have a glass of something bubbly and try the euphoric feeling of forgiveness if you haven't lately. It has done me a world of good. 

This year I didn’t mail many cards, I’m still getting settled, but do know that I am thinking of you constantly and sending all my best. 


Monday, January 30, 2017

Greetings from the Garden

I cheated.

This year I got a head start on the garden.

One of our favorite books is Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert (Harcourt).

We went to the nursery and bought the rainbow (A good friend once told me to bloom where planted, gardening is always the beginning of a new home).

These are the benefits of living in Niger, the flowers are aways in bloom.  The rainbow here is the familiar; lantana and birds of paradise for the butterflies to attract friends to the garden, citronella to keep pests away and the same lettuces we love.

It's a good life for a Myalgia Mommie and I hope to write more as we settle into a new routine. I have an amazing garden and the children are flourishing. We relocated to Africa during the Holiday season to try something completely different.

Living with Chronic Pain I find gardening and meditating to be most efficacious for a myriad of symptoms, at least for me.

As research continues to demonstrate, there is a powerful mind/body connection. I enjoy gardening because we can witness the fruits of our labors in a relatively short period of time. It also gives a sense of achievement or accomplishment. (Except the orchids I killed, but that's another blog...) Sometimes, I need that short term validation. The salad we picked last night was wonderfully satisfying.

Parenting is such a long game. As we talk to friends who are becoming grandparents, I realize this isn't a phase of life: this is life.

I had to come to Africa to find a place where I could raise my three darlings in the environment that I think will be best for their growth. Also, it sounded like a fun adventure. Here I have found people raising happy children with little or no resources. I've also found some orphans to give my extra energy to, so things are good. It's strange being in such an empty place during a time of great migration.  I will try to learn different lessons and write again soon.

Niamey, Niger

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