The flies seemed intolerable. I swatted at them irritably as our jeep bounced along the parallel grooved track through the savannah. At noon nothing moved in the great sweep of flat earth reaching to the far horizons except for the winged nuisances.
“Watah lady?” the guide held out a canteen. Nodding, I accepted it and took a long swig, gratefully noting by the weight that it appeared to be full. The few water holes we’d passed were more mud and silt than water. A few skeletons of emu, zebras, and antelope also littered the sides of the track.
The jeep swerved suddenly but didn’t succeed in missing a large tortoise shell, seemingly very misplaced in this waterless place. The vehicle rose into the air in protest of the sudden change of direction and as we were thrown from it the jeep came down on its side, the wheels on the upper side still spinning.
Dazed, I sat up and almost fainted again. I felt strong hands grasp me under the arms and legs and lift me. I glimpsed dark faces over emaciated bodies bending over me before completely losing consciousness.
I was next aware of a warm broth-like liquid being poured between my parched lips. A strange dialect buzzed over my head. The faces I saw didn’t seem unfriendly. I was helped to a sitting position where I could observe my surroundings. I wondered what had happened to the others.
Slowly my vision cleared and I could see that these people were absolutely starved. Their brown skin barely concealed the bones in their chests and extremities. I felt suddenly very conscious of my own too well fed physique. I realized that the meager broth I’d been fed had been a precious gift from a people who had no such thing to truly spare.
After a time, I rose and made my way slowly to the door of the hut. Blinking against the bright sunlight I saw one of my guides conversing with an elderly man of what appeared to be a small village composed of mud and thatch huts.
Seeing me the two men came over.
“I tell heem you docta’. He wan’ you help his son.”
“Take me to his son. Do we have my bag?”
I’d been traveling to the hospital in Mutobo to treat children with AIDS. It was pictures of children such as I was currently looking at that had brought me to Africa with Doctors Without Borders. I had been very successful in my practice yet my life held a void that was almost unbearable at times. After hearing about the organization that sent doctors to places like this I signed up readily.
The young man had a freshly broken arm. Setting it, I saw that he was dehydrated as were all of the people in the village. Only water was going to help.
I communicated this to the guide.
Another exchange and then: “No rain days an’ days.”
I prayed for rain.
A fire danced in a central pit surrounded by the small huts. A shared evening meal was prepared there.
After the meal, which appeared to be more of the broth I’d been given, plus some small cakes made from I knew not what vegetation, the people sat quietly looking at me.
The sunset suffusing the nearby acacia trees cast a golden glow over the heartbreaking yet almost extraordinary scene before me.
Mothers hugged their starvation deformed children closely, crooning over them in a soft and strange but lyrical sound. Love poured from their eyes for these little ones with such an uncertain future.
I thought of women at home on their cell phones dragging toddlers by one hand as they made their way through the mall. I chided myself even as the thought occurred. My own children were grown and even in a different time when they were very young I too had been very busy, though I believed I’d done my best to give them the attention they needed.
Now my nest back home was empty. Watching these mothers I couldn’t help thinking that even though their stomachs were shriveled with hunger the hearts of these women overflowed.
The next day additional guides appeared with another jeep.
As I left the small village I knew they were bidding me a warm goodbye. I also knew I would return here, for these people whose words I could not understand had slipped in and replenished the dry desert that had been my heart.
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