We found 2 year old baby Musa on August 4th. His mother Lydia brought him to Bugobero Health Center for our twice- monthly supplemental feeding program for malnourished children. It was obvious as soon as we saw him that his condition was severe; too complicated to handle in an outpatient program. His face and limbs were swollen, his skin was broken and peeling, there was fluid draining from the open wounds on his legs. He looked more like a burn victim than the typical image of a hungry African child of no more substance than skin and bones. Musa was different, and sadly there are many other cases just like his in the villages of Uganda. Musa was suffering from a condition called Kwashiorkor which occurs when the body doesn’t receive the proper nutrients and proteins. The body swells (called oedema), the skin begins to darken, harden and peel, and the child becomes very weak and unable to walk.
We immediately advised Lydia to go home, gather her things, and come back to the health center. From there, we transported Lydia, Musa, and four other severely malnourished children and their mothers to Mbale Regional Hospital, an hour’s drive from the village. In cases such as these, when outpatient feeding isn’t enough, it’s necessary to refer these children to the malnutrition unit at the Regional Hospital. It sounds simple, but with this solution comes a problem. FEAR. Recovery can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. Many of these mothers have never left their mud houses in the village. Some of them have seven other children to care for at home. Some of them don’t have a single coin in their pocket. They fear the unknown; they fear for the ones they leave behind, they even fear that their husbands will find another wife. The excuses for staying home are endless, and we’ve heard them all. Unfortunately, in some cases the fear of the mother leads to the death of a child.
On this particular day in August, five courageous mothers climbed into the vehicle with us and made the journey to Mbale. All five children had other medical complications in addition to severe malnutrition. Because of these other complications, the typical first stop at the hospital is the Acute Pediatric Ward where the children stay until they are medically stable. Only five minutes in this place is enough to make anyone want to run. Imagine dirty, tattered mattresses, three children to a bed, mothers sleeping on the floor, and a line of screaming children waiting for IV’s administered by overworked and impatient government employed nurses. There have been times we’ve been in the ward when the doctor decides to peace out, leaving the nurse who shortly gives up and also leaves. There could be a period of hours before the next nurse’s shift begins. Parents are left broken and confused as they beg for help but are sometimes left unattended. The scene in that ward is always heartbreaking. The place is not for the weak or faint at heart.
We have an amazing nutrition team made up of Angella – nutritionist, Phiona – Nurse, Lindsey – Public Health Officer, and me – missionary. As supporters of these women and children, we try to do our best to make them as comfortable as possible so they will stay at the hospital. We know that the odds that the mothers will give up and run back home are fairly high. There’s nothing we can really do to force them to stay besides counsel them as best as we can in the best interest of the lives of the children. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes we fail. Despite our daily visits to the ward, and the assistance with food, soap, blankets, and other necessities, sometimes our efforts aren’t enough to keep the mothers from running. That was the case with Lydia and Musa. Lydia claimed that Musa was her sister’s child and not her own. She later told us that wasn’t the truth, but we figured it out for ourselves when we saw her love and compassion for her suffering little boy. She was ashamed that she had gotten her baby into this condition, so it was just easier for her to deny that the child was even hers. At the tender age of only 25, Lydia had already lost two other children; maybe she just didn’t want to admit to herself she might lose another one.
Because of Musa’s critical condition, we would personally transport him to a private hospital for special care of the open wounds on his little legs and then take him back to the Nutrition Unit at the Regional Hospital. Our team fell in love with baby Musa and made it our mission to make sure he recovered. You would think that Lydia would have been our biggest supporter. In reality, she became our biggest adversary. We received a call one afternoon from the nurse at the Nutrition Ward. Lydia had escaped with Musa and was most likely on the run back to the village. In a bit of a panic, we decided to drive to the taxi park hoping to catch her before she boarded the taxi. We sat for a while, watching the crowds move until we began to lose hope. With God’s merciful intervention, we spotted Lydia with baby Musa tied to her back. As we approached her, a crowd quickly gathered around her as people realized she was trying to escape the hospital with a sick baby. Stern voices turned into shouts and finger pointing, as the people surrounding Lydia tried to convince her to go back to the hospital. I still don’t know exactly what was said that day, but somehow Lydia finally relented and found herself in the car with us on the way back to the hospital. That was only the beginning of the day’s drama.
When we arrived back at the malnutrition unit, it was obvious Lydia wasn’t happy. She left Musa alone on a bench and frantically dialed numbers on her phone hoping for someone to rescue her. She was prepared to abandon Musa and find her own way out. That’s when we called in Child Protection and Family Services. Much to our surprise, Lydia told the officers that we were mistreating her and continued with other lies that made us sound like we were to blame. After we explained our side of the story, they began to see that Lydia’s story just didn’t add up. At one point there was quite a scene, which made for exciting entertainment for the rest of the women at the unit. Even the police came to help sort out the story. By the end of the evening it was clear to everyone that Lydia was quite mixed up…and did I mention she was 7 months pregnant at the time? We think her hormones were maybe causing some of her emotional outbursts. Regardless, by the end of all the drama we convinced Lydia to stay there with Musa so he could complete his recovery there. Or so we thought…
For the next few weeks we continued to visit Lydia and Musa, although less frequently to ensure that she didn’t feel more “special” that the other women. We sat with her, we prayed with her. Gradually, her attitude began to change. She went from being ungrateful and uncooperative to appreciating our dedication and acknowledging our love. Her deep, intense frowns began to turn upside down. We were also happy with Musa’s progress as his skin was improving, the odema was reducing, and he was even starting to walk again. Even Lydia and Lindsey were starting to form a bond of friendship. Our prayers were being answered. Then abruptly, the news came. Lydia disappeared again. This time it was too late to catch her.
A few more weeks went by and we didn’t really have any new information about Lydia or Musa. We asked some community health workers and they didn’t know much about her whereabouts or Musa’s condition. We decided to take a day trip out to the village and look for her, not knowing what we would find or how we would be received. The others on our team expected the worst from Lydia – they thought she would hide from us or chase us away. I knew in my heart the story would be different. I imagined a smiling face and a grateful heart. When we arrived at her home we found Musa’s grandmother straight from the garden, barefoot and filthy. She welcomed us with a smile and proudly presented to us a normal, healthy baby Musa. We were so happy. Musa wasn’t so happy to see us however, because he remembered us being around when he was really sick.
Some village kids disappeared into the fields, running as fast as their legs could carry them. When they emerged again from the trees in the distance, we could see the unmistakable figure of Mama Musa walking quickly towards us with a 5 gallon can of water on her head, now 8 months pregnant. As she approached us, she was absolutely glowing. Her smile went from ear to ear, as she laughed excitedly, unable to contain her joy. She was genuinely happy to see us. She hugged each one of us, more than once, and explained in the local language how she and Musa had been doing. The people in the village were amazed at Musa’s recovery and even more amazed that we actually showed up for a visit.
It was at that moment we all realized how powerful love really is. Love means never giving up on someone. Lydia understood that we came far into the village that day to show her that we loved her and her baby. She finally realized despite the abuse and the lies from her in the past: we had forgiven her. Maybe for the first time in her life she really felt truly loved. The power of love had healed her baby and healed our hearts. That kind of love isn’t possible if we search for it inside ourselves. That love is only possible through God’s grace. The kind of grace that comes from sacrificing a Son so that love could live in all of us. On that day in the middle of a village in Uganda, I saw God’s plan of rebellion, redemption, forgiveness and hope come together in a moment of pure LOVE. Happiness like that can’t be created by human plans. Only God can put the perfect people together at the perfect time so that His love becomes undeniable.
God’s love is like that with all of us. As many times as we may run from Him, He never gives up on us. He never leaves us, never forgets us, never abandons us. In His forgiveness and grace, He comes to find us in the deepest and darkest corners of our hearts, and shines His light of love into our souls. We are healed because HE IS LOVE.
We continued to keep in touch with Lydia in the weeks to come, and one early morning at 4 am, Lindsey received a call from her. She explained that she had just finished giving birth to her baby girl on the dirt floor of her village home. Everything was fine and the baby was healthy. The next day we went to visit. In typical African style, Lydia was up and moving around like it was just a normal day, Musa was parading around naked with some food in his hands, and the new baby was sleeping contently as we proudly passed her around our circle of visitors.
In such a happy time, we also had to face sadness. Earlier in the week, one of Lydia’s neighbors brought her child for our feeding program. Baby Anna had severe oedema and we advised the mother to come with us to Mbale Regional. We tried everything but couldn’t get her to agree. She went home with baby Anna. Two days later we received the call that Anna had passed away. After meeting Lydia’s new baby, Lydia took us to the home of Mama Anna. We gathered at the grave of baby Anna with the entire family, both poverty and grief stricken. We prayed with them, offered our condolences, and left them in peace. We didn’t go to place blame or to accuse her of neglect. We just went to offer our support. I think she was surprised, I hope she was comforted.
That’s life in Uganda. There are days when you experience both sadness and joy, darkness and light, suffering and healing. One thing always remains that same and that is LOVE. Love can’t just be a feeling, love has to be an action. Love is present in good times and in bad. Because of people like Lydia I know that love can’t be a project or an initiative. Love is about individual hearts and unique people united by the hand of God.
“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” – 1 John 3:18
We had been waiting to hear what Lydia named her baby girl. (It’s typical for Ugandans to wait a while before naming their babies because many children don’t make it past the first few days of life). We finally learned the name of the baby: Lindsey. Lydia’s friend who never gave up on her and loved her despite her flaws now has a namesake. Sadly, Lindsey is moving back to her home country of Kenya at the end of this year. We will miss our dear sister, but the spirit of love inside of her will always be remembered through the life of a special little girl.
**I hope you are enjoying the stories of these individuals that have helped me to love and be loved in this place. More to come!