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January 18, 2013 at 11:14 AMComments: 1 Faves: 0

First World Problems: It's All Relative

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

The Land Rover bounced and jostled up the Chawia road, a picturesque mountainside nestled in the Taita Hills region of Kenya. The journey was not quite two kilometers off the main road, but it seemed longer with the ruts, washouts, and steep inclines twisting and turning around sheer drop-offs.

A group of children met us halfway as we disturbed their evening entertainment poking a tortoise as it lumbered across the terrain. "Wazugu!" (white people) they screamed, jumping up. They chased after the car, suddenly disinterested in the poor reptile. I looked through the back window, and in the trailing dust I saw six dark faces and white teeth keeping pace with our advancement. Up the mountain we went, children in chase until the road slowly narrowed to a single path. I emerged from the vehicle and surveyed the beautiful scenery of the soft evening glow over lush mountains and valleys. Mud huts with tin roofs scattered across the landscape. One of the children urged us down the path to where my patient lived. I grabbed my things and followed the boy. Looking down, conscious of jagged rocks and the possible green mamba snake, I noticed his blue plastic sandals with the heels long worn away. These were the poorest of the poor - so isolated, I thought.

Ten minutes later, we were at our location, a mud hut atop a hill. I felt the 4,000 foot elevation ascending the final approach. Children of various ages played in the yard with sticks. Chili peppers dried on a piece of tin atop a rock. Maize grew, neatly in rows along the side of the one-room mud structure. A woman emerged from the doorway with an expectant and warm smile. A child of maybe two was slung by a single piece of cloth on her back. I saw movement behind her, rustling. A fury of tattered red tafita rolled toward the door. Teeth-hair-teeth-hair marked her head's progression as she log-rolled her way into the sunlight from the dark inside. A squeal heralded her acknowledgement that the visitors had arrived.

Mother smiled and lifted her nine-year-old child who weighed maybe 45 pounds into her arms. The torn red dress mirrored Wawasi-Janet's fiery demeanor. Arms and legs flailed rapidly and uncontrollably in her excitement.

I sat with them and listened to her story. She was born as an identical twin, two months early in the hut. Development was slow for the twins, neither walking or able to feed themselves. Speech came slowly, difficult to understand.  Janet's sister died when she was four. Their father left the mother and six remaining children due to the challenges. Yet, Janet maintained a resilience, challenging herself, talking about walking some day and maintaining joy.

I examined Janet head to toe, drawn into her beautiful smile. No muscle contractures and no bed sores, which would be common in anyone with severe cerebral palsy. Mother and I discussed, with the help of an interpreter, the challenges of cerebral palsy and Janet's amazing condition given all the apparent obstacles.

I told Janet and her mother that I believed she would someday walk. Though I spoke this with the authority of a physician, the view shined apparent based on Janet's strength in attitude and my belief that there is a God who can do all things. I hugged Janet goodbye, humbled to have cared for her briefly. Her mother and I held hands and locked eyes as she said something in Swahili. Words did not matter.

We drove down the mountain bumping and jostling past women carrying buckets to the water source nearly two kilometers down the path at the main road. I thought of how a walker could change, and perhaps even save, Janet's life. I thought of the Legos and Wii game that I bought my children before coming to Kenya, priced about the same as that walker. 

Poorest of the poor, isolated. Really, these terms are relative when happiness and a content disposition prevail. I saw no shortage of smiles; I saw no complaining. Any suffering was met with resilience. Indeed, it is relative. And yet when I return, I brace myself for the typical speak of difficulties and discontent. Returning to the First World is difficult.

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1 Comment

  • Beautiful! So true that we in the first world have a hard time remembering the true source of joy and happiness. Keep it up!

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