So today, I bear witness to some women and their lives, unable to stop their suffering, but called to testify about it.
This morning began with a mother and grandmother arriving somewhat breathless on the ward, carrying the bundle of Achelo Jeneti, a very sick 2-year old. Normally patients are supposed to begin in the outpatient department, but a quick look at Jeneti and I knew she needed lots of help, fast. It turned out that she was HIV positive, though her mother out of denial or misunderstanding had never brought her for care until today, when it was too late. In spite of our best antibiotics, and a blood transfusion, her little body had decompensated beyond the point of return. Jeneti's grandmother was hysterical: of her six children, five had died, and this daughter with AIDS was her last living offspring, and had now left her without a grandchild. Jeneti's mother's wails pierced the ward, she had been abandoned long ago by the baby's father, a soldier who fled back to his home in Fort Portal when his health began to fail. Two women who had come too late for help, and lost everything.
The ripples of AIDS are most acutely felt by the young women, the outsiders, the abandoned wives. Two on the ward are in their late teens. One I can picture a few years ago, full of hope and importance, sent by her father to a good school in Fort Portal. She returned pregnant by a school staff, and infected with HIV, and now her child is malnourished and struggling, as she lives back with her parents, her education suspended probably forever. The other is from Kitgum, far away in northern Uganda. Her parents brought her here when her soldier father was transferred this way. Both have since died, and she has been left to survive as she can. For a young woman in Bundibugyo, that means finding a man to pay for her needs, and giving him what he wants. In this case she also received the HIV virus. Her baby also has AIDS, and she spent the weekend out searching for money from any acquaintance from her tribe who would help her get to her uncles' homes up north, because there is no one here to whom she can turn. She is right beside a listless young woman from Congo who has not seen her family home in eight years. Her husband has refused our plea to send someone from the family to help her with her malnourished twins, and she looks tired and vacant as they whimper side by side on the bed.
A woman's voice here is only felt if she has brothers, a father, or uncles to back it up, or a grown son to stand behind her. Without that she is a trade-able commodity, a potential producer of more clan members for a temporary husband, easily discarded when she becomes sick or inconvenient. Too many suffer alone, perhaps the greatest loss is to see them emotionally withdraw from a child they suspect will either die or be reclaimed by the father's family.
Our pouring of perfume is more like milk, some nourishment, a prayer, kind words, eye contact, listening. And remembering. And giving witness to the suffering we can't stop.