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Volunteers in Katondwe, part 2

Volunteers in Katondwe, part 2

Coverage by Agnieszka Wasilewska and Magdalena Mrozowska

Life in Zambia is much different from that in Europe. Here people struggle not only with the diseases that we mentioned in the first part of our coverage but above all with poverty and shortage of food. They often have only one meal a day and this consists of some corn flour paste (to us, the ‘whites’, or ‘muzungu’, it tastes more or less like mortar), alternatively some beans or cabbage. At the same time, their daily duties require a lot of strength: they work with fishing, weaving baskets and mats; and they work very hard in the field; at the same time, women take care of several children, carrying the smaller ones on their backs, wrapped in a so-called chitenge. When going to the river in order to catch some fish or do the washing, locals are exposed not only to the trematodes that are prevalent in the water and cause bilharziosis but also to being attacked by crocodiles, which can lurk at the very riverbank and jump at their victims with incredible speed. A problem affecting a considerable part of the country is shortage of electricity and running water. Nevertheless, the inhabitants seem to keep their spirits up; basically, they are very welcoming and tolerant, they love singing and dancing (what a sense of rhythm and harmony they have!) and due to the fact that it is the large multigenerational family model that is most prevalent here, they spend a lot of time among their loved ones.

Our stay so far in Katondwe keeps bringing us new experiences. It is a great joy for us to be able to get to know the African continent with its natural and cultural wealth, not to mention how much we have learnt during our work with the patients even though we have only been staying here for less than two months. We knew a lot of the diseases occurring here only from books and stories. We are also learning how to cope in the new conditions but we are provided with great concern and attention at all times by the beloved Sisters, who are tirelessly introducing us to the secrets of tropical medicine and at the same time making sure that we do not lack anything and helping us before we even ask. It was thanks to them and the Polish traditions cherished by them that despite being so far away from home we had a beautiful and touching Christmas. Our daily work is also a source of many small joys. It always makes us happy whenever we manage to help a patient, when they leave us smiling and happy and say there is no more pain and they feel better.

As in life, there are some small difficulties. Although the sisters have done really huge work in order to provide modern medical standards and introduced a lot of remarkable solutions – as for the local conditions; however, the diagnostic and therapeutic potential is still limited. There is no possibility of performing some laboratory tests, such as assessment of renal function or thyroid function, or electrolytic levels. There is neither computed tomography that might explain problematic cases or help in dealing with head injuries nor endoscopy. There are power cuts; however, the Sisters bravely struggle with the lack of electricity by installing solar batteries in the successive wings of the hospital. And the appropriate medicines are not always available. Many of them would be missing at all if it were not for the efforts made by the Sisters and people of good will to bring them from Poland. Another real challenge is the supply of the blood bank as blood is transported form Lusaka, 260 km away, like most other products and food. Communicating with the patients can be extremely difficult, too; some of them speak fluent English (this is the official language) but the majority speak their tribal languages, in our region it is usually Nyanja. We would have no chance to communicate without the help from the hospital personnel. Besides, there is a shortage of personnel, too (Sis. Góra is the only doctor in the entire hospital!). For us, the worst moments are when patients come in a very severe condition, with metastatic cancer or untreated AIDS, when not much can be done for them. It is also hard to come to terms with the fact that a lot of patients would be able to receive proper care in the European conditions through application of advanced medicine and appropriate equipment; however, there is no such option for them here. Sometimes they are very young people. This makes our admiration for the Sisters and the whole hospital staff even greater as despite the difficulties they carry on every day with their mission of helping those in need and their commitment to bringing relief in suffering in any possible way with all methods that are available here continues unabated. Their competences might put to shame many a specialist doctor.

And so our African adventure continues. Although life in out village is quitter than in large European cities, it turns out that time flies just as fast. We have already experienced a lot; and we have learned that each day here can really be a surprise. We still have some time before we return in early February; nevertheless, already now we wish to express our gratitude for all the help and support shown not only to us but also to our brothers and sisters from the southern hemisphere. Your concern about them has given a lot of emotions to us, too. There is beauty and goodness in people! Sometimes it seems that the things we do are just a drop in the ocean; after all, we will not repair the whole world. But the thought that we can sometimes repair the world of one single person is really helpful.

At the start of the new year 2018 we offer you all our best wishes – may this year bring you hope and faith in people, a sense of meaning and fulfilment of your dreams as well as strength, health, luck and smiling, sincere friends, a lot of love and all prosperity! Happy New Year!

With really hot greetings,

Agnieszka and Magda