Saturday, September 27, 2008

BODIES IN MOTION - Sept. 26th, 2008


As I live next to a maternity ward, there are pregnant women always flowing in and around my world. They come from villages far and wide to deliver here. Some are here for 24 hours and leave after delivery. ( I saw one woman being stitched-up after delivery and three hours later she was walking out of the clinic with baby wrapped on her back.) Others are here for a long time, having misjudged their impending delivery. I have mentioned that I would love to be around for a delivery and the time finally seemed right. A woman (June) was having very intense contractions but was hardly dilated. It turns out that she had been to a traditional healer who had inserted some “medicine” in her to bring on labor. This is not uncommon for the village women to use traditional medicine. I was told that it consists of horse placenta, mercury (?) and herbs. I checked in and out of the labor room as the evening progressed. By the time she was dilated to 8, she was exhausted and no longer having contractions. At 11pm, I walked into the strangest of scenes. The woman had four nurses around here – one was standing on the head of the bed, feet on either side of her head, bent over her, pressing down on her womb with all her weight. When this nurse became tired, another nurse climbed onto the bed (hiking boots and all) and did the same thing. The woman looked like a rag doll while she was basically being pounded by the staff. They were also angry at her and called her “uncooperative” because she had been pushing when she wasn’t supposed to be. To make a long story short, the baby’s head was jammed/turned into the pelvis so they sent her to a government hospital for a Caesarian. Sadly, the baby did not survive. A bad labor, a bad outcome. That scene is seared into my mind’s eye and I am sure I will never forget it.

And now for another scene I will never forget. I received a personal hand-written invitation to attend a “crime-prevention” event beginning at 8am. I am thinking that this will be some classroom lecture with the local police. It turns out to be a major event being held at the town soccer field. Chiefs from the major towns were there, heads of police departments, Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Forestry, Deputy Prime Minister of Lesotho, choirs, dance performers, and a band. Of course, the event didn’t begin until 11am. So to kill time, my counterpart and I began walking around the town and we were waved into the local funeral home. They wanted to give us a tour. The entry room was filled with caskets standing on-end, some purple, some blue, some brown, ranging in price from $150 to $600. The funeral home handles the whole event for $150 plus casket. This business says they do about 5 funerals per month. It seems that every Saturday, everyone is going to a funeral. The previous week, they were holding 30 bodies (just from the local area). So, I am asked if I want to see the dead bodies and I say “sure”- (they did look a little surprised). I am walked into the body-preparation room and the cold storage door is opened. I feel the coolness and I smell the formaldehyde. Then I see death. Through the dim light, the first person I see is an old silver-haired man, skin and bones. I see that the room has a couple of bunk beds with several bodies on each bed (probably 10-12 in all), partially, but not completely covered with sheets . I looked hard, trying to see the ages, the conditions of the bodies, the faces. Mostly what I noticed was how thin and emaciated they all appeared. And I noticed how one bed held several bodies which were all small and very thin. I imagined AIDS to be the grim-reaper for most of them. The smell of formaldehyde lingered around me for some hours.

Neither the labor room nor the cold storage room shocked or horrified me. I mostly found myself fascinated with practices that are somewhere between two worlds – the world of the traditional/simplified/primitive, and that of the steely, precise, Western sophistication. This is consistent with my impression of Lesotho as a land in major cultural transition. The Basotho have a long history of Kings, chiefdoms, patriarchy, polygamy, and traditional healers.. But with democracy, Christianity, gender equality laws and technology, they are stumbling into something new and unknown. It doesn’t move gracefully or easily. It can appear comical, or horrifying, or clumsy. I am grateful for this snapshot of a land and culture trying to do this difficult dance in two worlds.