Abilene High School Class of 1961

February 8, 2007

Karen Lusby Wiggin’s Christmas 06 story from Africa

Filed under: Uncategorized — johnodam @ 3:58 pm

Here is the story as I saw it.

Graci in the hospital  December 19 2006

Graci had a baby.  Graci is 15 and is the little girl
of Juliana, my house mother here in Bunda, Tanzania.
No one even knew that she was pregnant. I spent most
of today at the Bunda Hospital, a small mission
hospital that is very primitive.  Graci had such high
blood pressure that she may not live through the
night.  Charles came later in the day to pray for her
and anoint her with oil.  It is 9:00 pm and I just
can’t even sleep from praying.

Sitting and holding a beautiful new baby who seemed to
know she needed to be calm and let her “baby mother”
have all the attention, I just watched and rocked and
prayed. It looked as if I was holding a gift from God
while at the same time watching God take another of
his children home.  Thank the Lord we are all
Christians. Charlini (the baby named for my husband,
Charles) was not making a sound.  She was making it a
silent night just like Jesus on Christmas.

Graci, her mother, was having a hard time breathing.
Her skin was very tight from all the swelling making
her hard to even recognize.  It was not just her feet
swelling, but her head and everywhere as if she was
blown up like a balloon.  I have been to this hospital
many times and yet I am still not used to the place.
We don’t even notice how clean things are in American
hospitals. If we do look around and find a single hair
on the floor we are grossed out.  For some reason,
they had her mattress on the floor and two IVs hooked
up to both arms. The bed that was next to her, where
her mattress used to be, was very dirty.  I saw stains
of blood. Underneath, the slats were covered in
cobwebs. I saw some sort of needle packaging that was
suspended in the webs like a safety net at a circus. 

I feel that Juliana is part of my family, and I
reverted back to my American self of wanting to fix
everything.  I wanted to find someone to save Graci. I
just wanted to just clean everything.  I refrained,
yet I might try to work on making sure that hospital
is clean later.  Maybe I could teach Sanitation and
Hygiene for the workers at that hospital.

Three other mothers were very quiet with their babies
in the same room. There were beds for six mothers in
the room. The mothers looked so healthy, and they were
so polite to stay very quiet.  They knew that Graci
was in trouble.  The hospital does not provide
anything but service and medication.  Everyone has to
bring a  basket of food, pieces of cloth for cover,
and swaddling clothes for the baby. All these things
were brought from home.

They have mosquito nets for the people that are in the
hospital.  The nets were as much for keeping flys off
as well as mosquitos.  Each patient must have someone
to stay with them to bring food and just be the nurse.
I was able to see that in the day, the nets were there
to keep the flies away. There were so many flies. I
felt the need to fan the patients that did not have
their nets over them.  Fanning Graci and singing the
Lord’s prayer softly and reciting the 23rd Psalm was
all I knew to do.

As we were going, Juliana was walking part of the way
with us carrying a tub full of dirty sheets and
clothes on her head. In all her grief, now she had to
wash laundry in a grassy area near a water tank.

I know that I am in a third world country, but I do
not want to let these practices just go unchanged.
Sometimes I just don’t know where to begin.  I pray
the Lord will lead me.

December 24, 2006

Yesterday, we buried Graci.  I have been in a fog for
the last 6 days.  It was time for me to learn the
actual hurt that exists in Tanzanians today and
throughout history.  The pain is not that different in
the U.S., but the acceptance of the hurt is different.
The  dealing with it is different.
                                                     
         John (my son) and I went to Juliana’s home to
find about 100 people were still at her home from
yesterday when Graci died. This is the practice. Go to
your friend’s home when someone dies and stay there
for three days.  Juilana was still in the clothes she
had been wearing at the hospital with the kanga that I
had left with her yesterday wrapped around her on top
of her other kangas.  John went with me and quickly
realized about the placement of people– men are to be
outside.  We just marched up to her house and went in.
 Juliana was in her dark, empty living room with its
mud walls and dirt floor.  Very close friends were
sitting with Juliana on a bamboo mat on the floor
leaning up against the mud covered brick wall.  She
hopped up to hug both John and me.  With my
claustrophobia and bad knees I couldn’t stay inside,
so I stepped on the stones down to the yard to sit
with the other friends on the rocks.  John retreated
to the outer yard that was set up with an alter table
and a curtain hanging in a tree to stand with the men.
Talking to Mr. Masele,  our Kiswahili teacher, we
learned the rules. Those who were very close stayed in
the room with Juliana, close friends were just outside
the door, and others were cooking in the outdoor
kitchen–shooing the skinny, hungry dog out.  Men
talked in the outer yard.  Not so close friends were
in the yard of a neighbor.

None of the women near me were doing any talking.
Just a few whispers.  Then the rains came.  John and I
headed for the car which was the only vehicle there.
The others just disappeared like they do at the market
when it rains.  You just look up and everyone is gone.
 It was a loud and sad rain as if God was crying for
Graci.  Soon my car was sitting in a river.

Without embalming, no one seemed to know what to do.
It was Saturday. The priest would not come on Sunday
and Monday was Christmas.  Tuesday was out of the
question. It would be too late.  It had to be today,
two days before Christmas, rain or not. 

As the rain slowed down, all came out from
where-ever-they-were and the casket had shown up in a
pick up truck.  Almost as if we were watching an old
western, a small wooden casket, just a fit for our
sweet Graci, showed up on the alter table on a white
cloth. The long nails were up ready to be hammered in.
On the top we could see the hammer ready to lock in
the horror of the last seven days.  Along with the
hammer a small china plate was on top of the casket.
At about the level of the shoulders  on the casket,
was some greenery that surrounded the face of what was
left of our sweet “child mother”.  John and I gathered
around watching Juliana as she sat on a stool next to
the casket.  She was very controlled and almost
comatose, after all, seven days ago she had a 15 year
old daughter with swollen feet and a swollen stomach
nothing more. Now, she had a baby a few days old and
had lost her young daughter.  It was the mother’s job
to sit by the coffin during the funeral.  Every time I
had a chance. I hugged Juliana’s other children who
seemed to be forgotten.

The priest was very up, smiling, giving hope and
reminding us that Graci was with God now.  No one else
was  smiling.  Juliana’s eyes were floating up and
down as if they were on the top edge of a wave in the
open sea.  She was not at all like she was when Graci
had just died in the hospital where she was angry at
the hospital, Graci, the baby, and even God.  Then,
her wailing was hard for me to even listen to.

After the priest was finished, it was time for the
mouth of the casket to open revealing Graci’s head,
while lines of people  walked by, each placing a coin
in the chipped china plate and saying good-bye to
Graci.  John and I were ready for this.  We had seen
an open casket funeral before in the U.S., but we were
not ready for what we observed here.  In the first
group that passed by with us, all was calm and under
control.  We placed the coins in the china plate,
glanced at Graci as her uncle sprayed her with
perfume, and we walked back to our place.  The last
group that came must have been her very best friends
and relatives.  As they saw Graci, they made sounds
that I did not think wild animals could make–at which
time they collapsed into the arms of men that were
ready to catch them.  I have been to church services
where people were slain in the sprit.  This was
something akin to that.  John and I wished we could
get the sadness within us out, as they had done, so it
would not hurt so much trapped inside us and burning.
With the mud, rain, pain, and the strangeness of
saying goodbye, John and I felt the need to just go
home, listen to music, and maybe eat something.  We
had come with Kathryn, our Peace Corps friend, and
went to tell her we were going home. She smiled and
said she would walk home, knowing full well that we
were not going to be able to just go home.  As we
listened to the hammering of the coffin reminding me
of the hammering of Jesus to the cross, Bang! Bang!
Bang!, I was about to explode with pent up emotion.
John’s eyes showed me he felt the same.  We hurried to
the car to retreat as fast as we could.  As we opened
our doors, the whole family poured inside–filling up
our car like a clown car at the circus.  As I looked
at John, the mud slick road, and the nearly empty gas
tank–I just said a prayer and joined in the parade to
the muddy spot where they would bury Graci.

They had placed the coffin in the pick up, about 20
men gathered around the coffin, and they placed the
truck in front of my car.  Kathryn was right.  We were
not just going home.  She would walk home, and we
would take the family to the burial site.

I did not know how far we would go, if I had enough
gas, or if I had the ability to drive us there.  Two
cars were in front of me now, and it was my job to
watch the fifteen inch square of wood that was the
foot of Graci’s coffin leave Bunda and head into the
depths of the muddy Lake Victoria region.

Turning off of the main road to what looked like the
short cut that you only take in the dry season to a
nearby village, I knew we were in trouble.  I watched
the first car heading into a small lake.  It made it.
Then the pick up made it, so off I went.  I got
through it and then raised my hands as if I had won a
contest.  All the men in the pickup saw my victory cry
and began to laugh.  They gave me the thumbs up and
began to laugh and scream.  Many in my car also began
to call, “Mama Africa! You can do it.”  All I could
think of was hearing my husband, Charles, at home sick
with malaria saying to me, “You just get your Mama
Africa back home to me, safely!”

I asked John if he knew how to engage the four-wheel
drive. He said no but proceeded to show me how.
Luckily, I had the clutch in.  Now I would watch the
two vehicles ahead of me slide one way, then the other
way, almost turning over and finally getting stuck and
having to be pushed out by all the men.  I would
duplicate their moves without the getting stuck part
and on we went into the unknown.  One place was so
thick with mud that they almost turned over–with mud
above the middle of the tires.  I could hear Baba (my
husband) say, “NO MORE”  so I told them I would go no
further.  They had to get out and walk, and I would
wait to take them back.  They understood and got out.
John and our security guard, Samson, (who had come to
the funeral) stayed with me.  I backed the car up
about the length of two football fields, until I
reached a place that I  could turn around. Now we were
ready to just sit and wait for the crowd to return. 

Now that they were gone, the contrast was
overwhelming.  Looking around at the vast barren land
quiet but with many birds singing, I decided to take a
walk in the mud and check out the road left to be our
challenge.  John opted to sleep, using his escape
method.  In the absolute quiet, the calmness and
serenity contrasted from the funeral, with the sun now
out and headed for its famous display of a Tanzanian
sunset, I just watched and listened.  Again, I felt
blessed to be here as I so often do.  I have often
asked God how these wonderful people cope with the
many deaths that they experience here every day
because of HIV/Aids and malaria.  Today God showed me
a very small example.  One day maybe I will be as
strong as these beautiful Christian women.

Wednesday, we will go to the baptism of little
Charleni before we deliver her to Lizabeth’s
orphanage.  Lizabeth keeps the children from birth
’till two years, then they are returned to the family.
 As of now, I don’t see what can happen to make the
family better equipped to raise Charleni in two years.
 (Because of superstitious relatives, the baby was not
taken to the orphanage.)  

We watched three herds of cows and one herd of small
goats along with their children shepherds pass by.
With the sun very low in the darkening sky, the family
returned, climbed back in the car, and we slowly drove
back through the mud to Juliana’s home.  It had been a
sad, strange day. 

December 28, 2006

Today started  muddy, rainy, and cold (like it had
been every day for the last four weeks or more).  I
chill to the bone as the day goes on, if it is
overcast.  Today is not overcast, but I am still cold.
 We live in equatorial Africa, and it is not supposed
to be cold here.  I guess it isn’t by American
standards, but sixty degrees with rain and wind makes
it cold for us and enough to make our joints ache.  I
decided to take a hot bath to try to warm up.  (My
husband traveled several hours away to a fairly large
city to buy a bathtub and small hot water heater for
me, and I will always be grateful.) At 9:00 A.M.,
Edina (one of our workers), Felista (a friend), and I
planned to go to the Catholic Church for the
christening of Charleni.  Charles still does not feel
good from the malaria, and John doesn’t want to go. I
think he is still trying to get over his sadness from
the burial of Charleni’s fifteen-year-old mother,
Graci.

We jumped in the car and headed off.  The Catholic
Church is very near our home and is high on the side
of the hills we look at from our house.  Knowing I
would have to climb a steep road in our car to get to
it, I put the car (a 1997 Nissan Patrol with
right-hand drive that has served three sets of
missionaries) in four wheel drive.  We had the only
car so I was not expecting to see too many people.
The church is huge by African standards and is in the
shape of a cross.  The ceiling was at least three
stories high with colossal windows  revealing a 360
degree view that was breathtaking.  Lake Victoria
seemed to be wearing a light fog like a veil out of
respect for the baptism.  By looking at the number of
people in the church, we should have seen a Wal-Mart
parking lot full of cars. 
This is an annual event and Mamas, na Babas, Bibis,
na Babus (mothers, fathers, grandmothers and
grandfathers) and babies were everywhere.  Two choirs
were lined up to process in.  The little girl’s choir
all had on yellow dresses that seem to glow against
their rich chocolate skin.  First, I found Juliana
(our housemother and the baby’s grandmother) and
greeted her.  Then I went back to sit with Felista and
Edina.  We observed the incense and bells and listened
to a long homily.  The choirs were just wonderful.  In
that huge open area, the sound just amplified and
praised our Lord.  I would have thought it would have
just echoed, but it filled the air with heavenly
sound.  The music just soared as did my spirits.  It
was very cleansing for all the grief I have been going
through.  I am learning how Tanzanians get their
strength.  One day maybe I will have their strength. 
When all was ready, those who were there to christen
their child came down.  My friends said I should go
with Juliana, so I did.  Wow!  The alter was full of
people all dressed up and full of pride for their
children.  Many children were crying, but they soon
stopped.  I just held onto Juliana’s arm as she held
that tiny small baby.  Juliana’s sister’s daughter was
there and had her daughter, Agnes, in her arms with a
pretty white dress on. We bought the dress weeks ago,
after Agnes survived the malaria that had put her in
the hospital. Agnes lives with Juliana and Juliana
stayed with Agnes in the hospital during her illness.

I was so glad to finally see Juliana smile today.  She
was so happy and ready to make her way in the world
again.  Determination had been her great strength and
I was afraid she might lose it, but she is strong in
her faith. 

When we were finished, after the service, lines were
gathering at the Christmas corner on the side of the
alter to take pictures.  This arrangement was
outrageously huge about five feet high and its floor
was at our shoulders near the Christmas tree. It was
full of greenery and sparkled with blinking, sparkling
and spinning lights all around the manger scene.  I
just had chills as I watched Juilana place Charleni on
the greenery at the foot of the crèche.  I started
thinking of Mary as she went through the same shame as
Graci had experienced before she died–trying to
explain why she was pregnant.  How strong Mary must
have been and this picture of Charleni at the feet of
Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus just gave holy
strength to this whole situation. And to think, I was
feeling kind of embarrassed about the Western
influence on this whole Christmas decoration when I
walked in.  The sadness from the death and burial was
still with me, but it had been overshadowed by the
holy joy of this very special day.

 
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