(F. Black – July 2014)
As many of you know, my wife and I recently served with a Medical Mission team at Chimala Mission Hospital in Tanzania. We returned about one month ago, but the mixed memories are indelibly stamped in our brains. Why the title “Bittersweet”? I give the credit for this term to Janice Bingham, the Nurse instructor from Harding University, who had eight of her senior nursing students with us. In addition our team had three other nurses plus Dr. Dean Paulsen from Anderson, Indiana.
I’ll write about the “sweet” part first. First and foremost, it’s such a pleasure and a blessing to serve people who are so medically needy and so amazingly grateful. Our journey, long and laborious as always, went well. Of course the trip had it’s usual hiccups – such as missing our flight from Zurich, Switzerland, to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – necessitating spending an extra day in Zurich. Nothing wrong with spending an extra day in Switzerland. Very enjoyable!! Not to bore you with travel stories, I’ll just say that the journey is long, hard, fraught with necessary changes, and summons up all your energy and patience. Along this line I’ll compliment our group. They were great travelers with not a ‘complainer’ or ‘wimp’ among them! In adding to the “sweet” list: Everyone worked very hard and well with excellent attitudes; We were able to medically help many, many patients and had a few cases we called our “miracle cures”; Everyone displayed a compassionate spirit in trying to represent Jesus to our patients; Lou Ann and I had a joyous reunion with our Tanzanian friends (remember that we lived there for five years); Everyone stayed healthy; We so appreciated the fine spirits of the Tanzanian people in the midst of their hardships; We enjoyed the beauty of the Tanzanian mountains and marveled at the African animals in Mikumi Game Park (elephants, lions, zebra, impala, giraffe, hippos, wart hogs, cape buffalo, etc.).
Now to the “bitter” part. I don’t want this to be a “downer” or depressive, but this is reality – their reality. You need to know this and consequently not only appreciate your blessings more but be more willing to help others. When people ask, “How was Africa?”, I never know quite what to say. I’m appreciative and know you are interested, but my mind spins with mixed emotions. If I use the term “Bittersweet”, I get a quizzical look. So I usually say something to the effect that, “We had a good trip, good group, and worked hard.” To really explain the “bitter” part is rather difficult and takes longer. I always feel at a loss and quite inept. Add to this that most Americans can’t really grasp the situation in a Third World ‘bush’ hospital. They really don’t have a reference point. My service in this type setting goes back 37 years, yet I still have difficulty in meaningfully explaining the situation. As Christian medical missionaries, we try and render the best health care possible while manifesting the love of Jesus. We know that our Lord cares for our physical health but that our spiritual health is more important. So in addition to compassionate medical care, I always look to pray with patients, present devotionals at the hospital, and speak in churches.
Let me just give a few examples of why we come back with a bitter taste in our mouth. No, it’s not disgust or disdain or dislike. The bitter taste is more a sadness – a feeling of helplessness.
- Many of our student nurses had never seen a patient die. In one 24 hour period we had five babies die. Can you just imagine the effect on the babies’ mothers and on our emotionally sensitive students! Most of these babies were prematures – in the range of two to three pounds. The facilities at Chimala are just not available to sustain these prematures. Our students took turns going to the hospital day and night to feed the babies with a dropper. The loss of these tiny lives really impacted our students.
- Rosina Kulanga is a lady about 65 (many Tanzanians don’t know their birth date). She fell and broke her hip. Many of you know of folks who’ve broken hips. In the USA generally such patients are operated on the next day, get physical therapy, and are up on their feet within a day or two using a walker or a cane. We didn’t have operative orthopedics available; and consequently, I put Rosina in traction (I call it 1950’s orthopedics). She stays like this for six weeks!! Can you even imagine? She can’t read; no radio; no TV; no computer; etc. She just lay there very patiently day after day with such a sweet spirit. We took her books with pictures, some food, even coloring books. Can you even imagine?
- HIV/AIDS: Most of you don’t know anyone with this horrible, diabolical disease. Not so in Chimala where about 20% of adults are HIV positive. (I always hasten to add that HIV in Tanzania is almost always passed heterosexually – from man to woman or woman to man). Untreated HIV cases then progress to clinical AIDS – which is fraught with horrible infections, organ failure, and the list goes on and on. About one/half of both male and female wards were filled with end stage AIDS patients. I felt horrible and hopeless in not being able to substantially help them.
I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. I hope you can realize why the term “Bittersweet” seems to fit. I just want you to better realize how much of the world is forced to live and how blessed you are. I’ve summarized this concept by saying that:
“You have the blessing of location.”
“They are the victims of location.”