Saturday, 1 September 2012
Waving goodbye to the Government official carrying the baby I felt relieved. If God would keep her alive after I'd found her abandoned in a gutter I promised to always look out for her. The doctors said she was going to be fine. They told me to call in a week to make an appointment to see her. Random foreigners are not allowed to visit orphanages but they would make an exception. For a month I heard nothing. Sometimes the number didn’t work. Other times the right person wasn’t there. They said to not just turn up as I would not be allowed in. I kept trying, frustrated but unsurprised by bureaucratic slowness. And then one day I got a call saying she’d died. Despite seeming alright on arrival at the orphanage, after a few days she’d developed a fever, been readmitted to hospital with pneumonia and water on her lungs, and died two weeks later. The Government official was very upset, “It was difficult to discover what happened as she didn’t have a name. It has taken me till now to confirm the unknown baby was the one you found. I’m sorry; they did all they could but she was too small and in the cold night for too long”. He didn’t know what had happened to her body. I felt numb; maybe if I’d taken her to a private orphanage or agreed to adopt her and taken her to a better hospital she might be alive. My mum had pneumonia when she had my sister and they were OK. People introduced me here as the guy who had saved an abandoned baby on his first night in town but all I’d done was give her a few weeks of painful life. Friends from home have asked what happened to her. No one here has. In poor countries painful defeats are regularly snatched from the jaws of apparent victory. It’s difficult to help people in places where even good intentions combined with good actions often fail: if 3 things are wrong fixing one isn’t enough. Her mother was probably ill during pregnancy and even the best medical treatment might not have saved her. We come here wanting to make a difference and have exciting adventures that make us feel alive and good about ourselves but it’s often hard to cope, which is why we withdraw, mentally and emotionally. It’s not because we don’t care or aren’t affected by the poverty and harshness of life but because if we don’t it’s hard to keep going. I felt numb when I found out she had died because part of me never allowed myself to accept the awfulness of her reality. Holding her en route to the hospital I didn’t look at her face too much or stroke her cheek; I didn’t want to get too emotionally attached in case she died. When you work in poor countries you have to find a level: what makes it worth giving up home? What’s too much? I find refugee camps too sad. I respect those who live in desert compounds eating food full of sand but find the reality of life for refugees overwhelming. They walked for weeks, lost children and their possessions to drought and war and are now unable to go home or substantially improve their lives, stuck in limbo, probably for years. So instead I write briefing notes, strategies, case studies and stories to remind important people to listen to poor people when doing things that affect them; making suggestions based on what those who know have found to work. Pavements here have beggars who follow you, often with horrible deformities, never with shoes. When the women try to show me their babies as I walk past I have to look away.