Friday, 29 June 2012

I saved an abandoned newborn baby

Walking along the unlit track home at midnight I was glad of my jumper. A wild dog barked and ran past me in the dark. At first I thought the crying noise was a mewling cat. The second time I stopped. Reluctantly I turned round. The glow of my phone revealed a baby covered in a black shawl lying in long grass next to a gutter. Three pints down and hungry, at the end of my first day in a new African city, I didn't want a baby. It had been deliberately left at a time and place where its discovery was unlikely. What if it was horribly deformed or died on me? I stood alone in the dark with the same feeling I had when I encountered a girl drowning on an abandoned beach in Ghana – you do the right thing not because you want to but because you know you can’t not. Trying not to think or look at it too closely I scooped the baby up and walked towards the lights. The baby stopped crying. One thing I'd learnt from getting my sister repatriated from Guatemala without travel insurance following a boat accident in the jungle was the value of reliable local knowledge. I walked past the 24 hour massage parlour with the outdoor mattresses and went back into the bar I'd left 5 minutes earlier. A waitress explained to the stoned taxi driver who spoke no English how to get to the St Gabriel Clinic. We roared along empty streets in his clapped out 1960s Lada. The only signs of life were prostitutes, wild dogs and neon-lit bars. Cradling the cold baby I prayed and tried to channel my body's warmth towards it and not worry about its silence and stillness. Arriving at the clinic they confirmed she was a healthy, newborn baby girl - the tied off umbilical cord proof she was only a few hours old. The elderly male doctor gave me a towel to wrap her in and told me to go to the police station. The younger female doctor said, "She has hypothermia. Take her to the neo-natal unit at the central hospital and get her into an incubator". The stoned taxi driver looked disappointed at this news and set off at top Lada speed. Knowing she wouldn’t die in my arms I relaxed a bit as we spluttered up hills and took a closer look at her tiny, cold hands and feet as she attempted to suckle my moob. I thought of my thirty-something friends living on the edge of Zone 2 with their cherished Oscars, Freyas and Ferguses. This baby had no one so I would be her friend, even though her dissatisfaction with my chest confirmed my feeling I couldn’t look after her. The hospital was full of sleeping bodies covered by thin blankets – how many were relatives of the unwell or sick people with nowhere to go I couldn’t tell. Driving in we nearly hit a man who was wailing and stumbling around the car park. It took a while for the taxi driver to wake a nurse, find the right ward and alert a doctor who could admit the baby. No one spoke English so the baby and I sat in the semi-darkness for about an hour. I didn’t mind the broken tiles, general sadness or lack of discernable activity. It was the smell that got me – sickly sweet, mixing sweat, illness and over-crowding. NHS hospitals smell much the same. £1.50 and a couple of blood tests later she was safely in an incubator warming up. In exchange for my driving license and a copy of my passport I was allowed to leave. “Come back at 8am to collect her” the nurse ordered. “Then what?” I asked. “We find the solution. Do you want to keep her?” The next day was spent waiting around for police, orphanage staff and doctors. Three to five babies a week are abandoned; if you ever find a baby in Africa take it straight to the police station. My failure to do so made things more complicated. Poverty or rape are the most common explanations given for abandoning newborns. Most are left outside offices in rush hour. No one knows how many more are not found. I've felt guilty that I'm only working here for four months. If I've learnt anything about working in Africa it's that you need time to build trust and make things happen. Four months is too short to do much good but I'm relieved that by the end of day one I'd already justified the trip to myself. She had been lying there for a while. Much longer she'd have either frozen to death or been eaten. Domesticated and wild dogs bark all night long here in a way I’ve never encountered anywhere else. This is because the hyenas make them crazy. Hyenas are to this part of the world what foxes are to London or raccoons are to the US – urban pests scavenging rubbish for carrion.