I am feeling quite nostalgic and a bit emotional these days. When I open up my Timehop app and Facebook I am reminded that a year ago today, I was driving through the DR Congo with my One Million Thumbprints team. (I have posted about this experience in depth here if you are interested or haven’t read.) None of us knew what to expect, and many of us were blindsided by some of the experiences. But we were all there for a reason. To bear witness. To listen. To look. To see.
It has taken me approximately 365 days to process this experience, and I am not sure I am finished. It was heavy, deep, painful, stressful, exciting, wonderful, epic, unforgettable. 1MT has been posting some of our thoughts and blog posts on Wednesdays leading up to the 1 year anniversary of our Kilimanjaro climb on March 8. Last week, my fellow teammate and now wonderful friend, Ruth, shared her vulnerable and honest thoughts about one particular experience we had in the Congo, at a fistula hospital. She expressed, so beautifully and painfully, what many of us were thinking, feeling and experiencing during that time as well.
It is commonly purported that smell is the most sensitive of our senses and has the strongest connection to memory. When I put myself back into that room of the hospital, it is the smell that hits me first. Perhaps the disorientation began with the smell, but maybe it was the surprise factor. Was this visit on our itinerary? Did I miss it? Was there an announcement or a description of the place that I overlooked? Was the group prepared somehow in my absence?
When our team of American peacemakers and mountain climbers entered the fistula hospital, it felt wrong.
The hospital blindsided me. I have been to some terrible places and I have sat in clinics in Africa with bodies stricken with advanced HIV disease, but that hospital was beyond anything I have experienced.
Of course we were there to advocate for women like the ones lying motionless on cots, but our very bodies felt way to loud—to big, too bright, too much. We lumbered through the gate and across a courtyard in plain view of an assortment of men, women and children who sat on plastic chairs staring at us. We were the anomaly, the strangers visiting their misery.
The smell began at the entrance and increased as we made our way into one of the buildings on the hospital’s property. This smell of incontinence, blood and dust was overpowering. Like a haze, it made it hard for me to focus. I was toward the back of the group and tried to smile and wave to the bystanders. I did not want them to think that we were simply a foreign mob of voyeurs, but maybe we were?
Our guides shepherded us into a relatively small recovery room where several women occupied beds tucked against every wall and corner. A doctor was describing each of the patients and how the hospital addressed the profound surgical needs they presented. Our group was so large that there was no room to spare, so he would pivot his body and point to each of the women while describing their particular horror. One woman had endured multiple surgeries to her “front side” and they still had not been able to address the “other side.” He lamented that the surgeries thus far did not appear to be particularly successful.
She lay listening to him describe her body’s injuries in a language she did not understand while fifteen odd, white faces stood over her taking in this information.
Why was he doing this? Why were these women being subjected to this kind of objectification? Wasn’t it enough that they had been brutally attacked by multiple men while simply tending their garden, walking to the neighbor’s, or hiding in the kitchen cupboard while militia solders hunted them like animals?
Wasn’t our presence just adding to their humiliation and degradation?
And, to think that these women were the lucky ones—the ones who had connections to medical care and the privilege of being in this place…