Monday, January 28, 2019

The Good, The Bad, and The Heartbreaking

Resting at the crater's edge on the top Mt. Logonot after a 2 hour ascend!

Spirituality and medicine are always interpreted as the work of the Supreme Being, believed in and worshipped by different communities in Africa, albeit with different names."(Religion and Health in Africa by Adam K. arap Chepkwony)

I am reading the book, Religion and Health in Africa that explains the inseparable nature of health and religion in Africa. It is paramount for me to have a general understanding of the complexity of beliefs embodied in the African people, in order to appreciate the people I am working with. The link between health and religion, or spirituality, is undeniable, manifested in varied beliefs, rituals and practices surrounding birth, circumcision, puberty, marriage and death.

Prior to colonization, the tribes practiced traditional medicine–rituals that included certain herbs prayers, dances and hunts. Once Christianity was brought to the region, traditional medicine was outlawed, subjugated to the list of worship activities that the Christians labeled as evil—calling the practices witchcraft, "from the devil," and idolatrous. Their mission was to eradicate these cultural traditions by any means at their disposal, including death of tribal members. The traditional  practices continued, but were forced underground.

However, over the last several decades, the World Health Organization has supported the revitalization of traditional medicine practices that have been subjected to hidden corners, advocating the combination of conventional and traditional medicine as holistic and liberating for the African people.

With over 42 tribes in Kenya, there are many different cultural beliefs in God, medicine and healing. Certain tribes believe that witchcraft has much to do with one's illness, and curses may be severe. Most of these people are also practicing Christians. The blame for the curse may fall on a deceased relative or someone in their community or family. The patient may express that he or she was cursed by God for some form of ill behavior. In the overall milieu of the culture of tribe, is a strong belief in some form of a Higher Spirit active in the life of the people

I felt a new door opened for me this week: one full of fresh air and new possibilities. You see, ever since I entered the chaplaincy program in divinity school, I have struggle with what my pastoral identity is. I feel I am "called," (a very ministerial word, I know!) to be with people who have experienced religion in a way that has harmed them, or made them feel less then their full and beautiful selves. Call it "religion repair." So in a way, I am a minister working from an anti-organized religious lean. I want to be a part of another's journey towards self love—a love of themselves exactly for who they are, how they were created from the very beginning, and freedom to celebrate this knowledge OUT LOUD!

  I am unsure who expresses more bewilderment: me when I tell someone I am studying to be a minister (which I quickly add the caveat: 'not in a religion sort of way, you know?'), or the person who has known my somewhat rebellious nature and hears this declaration spoken from my lips? There is a pregnant pause while we are both simultaneously trying to connect Mary and minister!

I have a conflicted relationship with God. I take that back. I do not have a conflicted relationship with a Supreme Essence, or a Higher Truth, per se; I have a conflicted relationship with the name "God." I associate the name "God" with organized religion. There is my struggle. I have heartbreakingly witnessed good people being belittled, judged, humiliated, ostracized, and shamed in the name of their God. I am more comfortable with any other name.

I was born with an unsettled mind! Since I can remember, I incessantly pondered the meaning of things, mostly existential concepts like life, death, God—heavy stuff for a young kid! Unfortunately, this inquisitive trait did not bode well at home and at school. I was from the generation that questioning was uncalled for, obedience was mandatory. I keenly remember feeling unmoored and agitated as my questions were regarded as unnecessary and irrelevant. I started to think that there was something wrong with me, or that I was flat out weird. With my lack of maturity and experience in worldly matters, I am sure my questioning nature came across as incorrigible and disrespectful. This became quite problematic when I entered high school. I spent a lot of time in the office of Sister Anne Marie, the principles of my all girls Catholic high school. This is when life became confusing and chaotic for me. My inquisitive nature morphed into a beast of self rightoueous anger and rebellion. Simultaneously, my home life was unraveling all around me. An unpleasant time, to be sure.

I fought hard against the script I was given regarding what I was to believe in and how I was to live my life. Looking back, I was only echoing my mother's battle cry for a new narrative, an updated and refreshing version of the well worn story that had been followed for generations. She longed for a new script, a story that was more encompassing and empowering for her. But the actors in the well worn and perfected script were not interested in any change. And while the play continued all around her, she withdrew from the stage unnoticed, and her isolation became too great. The only way she knew how to stop the play for a moment was to try and become louder than the actors, through anger then rage. But the actors continued to move in the same worn patters, smiles painted on their faces for the audience to see. This continued until her rage drove her to the  companionship of a bottle of wine and some  prescription drugs. But the actors did not mind. They just moved her off the stage and in to the darkness. That is what happens if you don't stay on script.

My family held strongly to the script that described the roles of a "good" Catholic and model citizen, as many other families of this generation did. The lines of the script were memorized, replete with strict gender binaries subsumed in a patriarchal system woven into the foundation of church, family and society. Any deviation from the script resulted in traveling a lonely, desolate road. Those who conformed found it necessary to ascribe to the non-conformers virulent messages of unworthiness and shame. And in a family prone to depression and other manifestations of mental illness, this attitude was just the nudge.There was no space for individuality, no interest in an alternate narrative or exploration in the meaning of another's story. These confines deflated a good many's sense of individuality and autonomy; more so, a sense of belonging and being loved. To this day, clinging to a well worn and tired script is still valued by some. They create the role for each character. There is no escaping the role they ascribe to the players in their story. But it is not sustainable. Relationships are broken. Lives have been lost. The story is truly a tragedy.

Wait...Aren't we all made in the image of God? I find God, or whatever name one chooses for their higher power, brings connection, belonging and joy—an energy too large to be contained in only one script! My sense of God is a whimsical, energizing, love filled essence that we are all a part of, and are invited to join in with every breath we take! Just look around at the beauty and diversity of creation! One script causes pain. One script causes division. One script makes the one holding it feel powerful and entitled. One script is self focused and narrow and demonstrates fear, afraid of considering alternate narratives. One script is love-less. It saddens me.

Father John began the lecture on spirituality and ministering to others with this line, "Sneeze God out!" His point being, chaplaincy is not about proselytizing or "doing religion." We do not approach a patient carrying a religion like we have the answers, but as a spiritual person face to face with another spiritual person. He furthered by saying, "Everyone is spiritual." But no two people are the same.

Life is full of meaning-making, and we should be opened to understanding the "meaning" held in the other. If one loses meaning, then he or she looses life.Poignantly put, John described our role as chaplains as one who "helps the other feel like home is being brought closer." This I can do.

Friday was my first day at Kenyata Hospital. The hospital campus holds the medical school along with apartments for the students and their families. As I approached the hospital building, I noticed  laundry hanging from most of the windows, drying in the hot sun that was relentlessly beating against the building. I later discovered that the hospital does not provide laundry service for patients. The hospital does not provide sheets for the beds, except in the burn unit. The hospital does not provide toiletries or even toilet paper (I found out the hard way when I went to use the loo). Walking the wards is a shocker for an American use to the finest of healthcare! Many of the  hospital rooms are equivalent to the size of half a school gymnasium, with no less than 50 blue mats without linens lined side by side, occupied by the patient and possibly a family member. In the areas where there are very young children, the mothers are allowed to stay in the hospital with them. There is a smell of bodies, sickness and sour smelling food left on trays scattered here and there. There are mothers sitting on the mat nursing their little babies who are wrapped in gauze because they have been burned in some sort of accident, or from abuse. There are mothers who are also bandaged from burns and injuries nursing their injured babies. Their eyes are distant and glazed over.

Many patients remain in the hospital because they cannot afford to pay their bill, which increases daily.
Entrance to hospital. Heavily guarded. I had to ask permission from guard to take pic.

The most difficult for me to observe were the many children who have been abandoned by their families. These children have been burned, beaten or cut through some form of trauma or abuse, and have remained in the hospital for more than one year. One boy in particular, who was around 11, has been laying wrapped in bandages from head to toe for over 9 months, no visitors, abandoned by his family. Another young boy, about the same age, was burned in an explosion and has not been visited by anyone in months. When his food tray was brought, he made a gesture indicating he was unable to lift the food to his mouth because of his injuries. The worker delivering the food did not have time to feed him, nor did the nurses. With permission, I was allowed to feed him. I glanced at his tray, a large dollop of ugali (the cooked cornmeal with bread-like consistency) and a small portion of cooked cabbage with carrots. I kept imagining my son. I would have brought the roof down on any institution that thought food like that was appropriate for my child's healing and comfort. I would have brought him or her a deluxe meal, super-sized if he or she wanted! But, I have that luxury.
 He opened his mouth, taking no more than 8 spoonfuls before shaking his little head "no," indicating he could not eat anymore. He took a sip of milk from a straw that a nurse created by using a non-sterile razor to slice some oxygen tubing.
The milk is poured out of a bucket into a cup for the all the children, at one time. There are no snacks between meals. There are no stuffed animals, cards or balloons to cheer them. It is heartbreaking. Where is hope to be found?
The main lobby, place to grab some food from vendors, before I found out I could not take pics in hospital

On a lighter note, I was able to escape the city on Saturday. I went on a tour that took me on a challenging hike up  to the volcanic crater of Mt. Longmont, followed by a boat safari at Lake Navaisha. I met a lovely women from Belgium, named Leen, who was in Nairobi doing training having to do with the trauma and violence experienced surrounding human slavery. She is presently working in Cambodia, having previously worked in Uganda and Nairobi. She works for an NGO that has "boots on the ground" combating human trafficking and slavery. Over a beer and a Kenyan lunch, we became fast friends.

It did not escape me, the juxtaposition of the pain and sadness with the beauty
My friend Leen, at the halfway point of the climb

Arrived at the Longonot's crater. Last volcanic eruption in the 1800's
Lake Navaisha: hippo in water

1 comment:

  1. Mary,
    Wow, that all I can say. I am amazed at the multi-realm journey that you are taking us on! So many wonderful and intriguing thought paths intertwined with your life, your family, the Catholic way and tue compare and contrast to other simple and broad ways to think about religion! Not to mention sharing the stark comparison of the hardship and beauty of being in Kenya. Thank you for sharing your journey!
    xox, Adrienne


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