All of the white people I have observed driving will firmly grab the stick shift and thrust it back and forth by the top of the handle, jarring the car into whatever gear he or she thinks most necessary at that point in time. While watching our ambulance driver, I noticed that he gently cradles the side of the handle in his hand, and only grips it firmly when he is changing gears. Even then, however, he will keep his hand on the side, never resting his palm on the top of the stick shift.
It was on the way to Tokora hospital with a handful of sick babies and their various parents in the back of our Land Rover that I made this comparison. I was going to visit little Lomongin at the hospital where he had been transferred. I hadn’t been to the hospital since we arrived in Karamoja in 2000, eight years ago.
We pulled up outside of a large, one-story building. I was surprised to see many patients lying outside on mats or blankets. The nurse from our clinic, Abura, explained, “They want to be outside”.
I inquired as to the whereabouts of Lomongin, but was surprised and delighted to hear that he had been discharged. The woman at the desk refused to specify, but she said his condition was determined ‘stable’. Whether he was discharged on hospice or not I don’t know. I can only hope he had recovered enough to not need the care of the hospital.
The nurse from our clinic, Abura, gave me a tour of the hospital. We visited the pediatric ward. It was all empty, save one tiny baby lying on a bed, a quinine drip attached to his head. His mother sat next to him, and Abura asked her some questions about the time the baby had been on the drip, where they were from, etc. That gave me time to take pictures of the hospital’s caved-in roof, the mosquito nets held up by sticks tied to the beds, and the many mattress-less beds.
We then ventured to the maternity ward, in which there was a door off to the side with a clumsy sign written on a scrap of posterboard in marker:
( I didn’t spell that wrong)
There were only two women in the room, one of whom was talking animatedly with someone outside in what sounded like a Southwestern Ugandan dialect. The other was a young Karimojong girl who sat, staring out the window. I remembered what one of my Karimojong friends had told me – “They send you to Tokora to die.”
This girl obviously seemed to believe that.
We went on to visit the men’s ward. It was relatively full compared to the other two. For every man in a bed, there was a wife and young child on the floor next to them. One man, wrapped entirely in a blanket, was sitting with his back to me. I thought he must be a young boy or something, for his head and neck were unusually slim for a fully grown man.
As he turned around, I realized that I was terribly wrong.
Bloodshot eyes stared out at me from a ghastly skull-like face. His cheeks were completely sunken in so that the cheekbones jutted out like knives. He raised a hand in greeting, and I saw that it was literally skin and bone, every phalanx visible in horrible detail.
I was so disturbed by his appearance that it took me a while to muster up the courage to speak to him. I greeted him and walked cautiously over to his bed. As I reached his bedside, I glanced down and noticed a tiny little baby lying wrapped up in a blanket on the floor next to him. I asked, “Is this your child?”
He said yes, she was.
I asked her name.
His hollow eyes glowed with love, and a smile creased the skin stretched across his face. “Tiyan”, he whispered “Tiyan.”
We talked some more and I told him I would pray for him. He thanked me and I left, feeling a horrible empty sadness for the man and his tiny daughter.
I visited the hospital again today and no one could tell me where he was. Someone else was in his bed, and there was no sign of him or his daughter anywhere.