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  Current Issue: Summer 2003

White Person Walking

The startling energy that is nurse Helen Weld ’80 in Africa.

By Hob Osterlund

I was a rabble rouser in Birkenstocks in my nursing school days, when everyone else was wearing high heels. I was inspired to be a nurse when I went backpacking in Sudan. I was 21. We came across an older gentleman who had a gigantic slash from a machete. That man’s pain — my God. I was powerless. After graduation I did a whole series of nursing jobs. In Australia I got involved preventing head lice in the schools. I started a business called Nitpickers, ended up getting my masters in public health there. I always wanted to return to Africa. I volunteered in Pakistan in the bucketing rain. I went to Kashmir and East Timor and Tuvalu and Sierra Leone and then more recently to Burundi where I’m really in the trenches and have met my calling. Burundi is one of the poorest and sickest countries in the world. You should read Tracy Kidder’s book Strength in What Remains about the founding of Village Health Works there. You never know what’s coming through the door, whether it’s a precipitous delivery or seizure or what. There’s no road for a catchment area of 60,000 people so they arrive by stretcher, carried by someone sometimes for a long way. It’s very steep and rugged. When I went on a trek to the villages a lot of the people had never seen a white person before, never mind a white person walking. Now people come on foot a long way to the clinic just to see it because it’s such a new thing. Some say they come to ‘see America.’ Kurundi is an agglutinative language, which means words are combined into one long word to be a whole sentence. Surnames are multi-syllables that mean things like thanks be to God for my food or only God gives birth. So it gets confusing. Oya, pronounced oh yeah, means no. Ego, pronounced egg-oh, means yes, so I can pick that word out. People appreciate it when you try but then they laugh a lot at my pronunciation. The VHW clinic started seeing patients in 2007 and they’ve seen about 30,000 patients already. It’s extremely challenged. It’s always down to people’s stories. In Burundi the basic modus operandi is that you don’t talk about the war. In the clinic there are a lot of Hutus and Tutsis and there’s zero talk about the g-word, the genocide. Practically every family has someone who died in the war. They’re wonderful people, you just want to help them all. Tracy Kidder wrote about them forming a human shield around the clinic after one of the staff was murdered. You hear about ‘the people’ in Africa but these are individuals with names and families and places. Parents of malnourished children go home with a seedling of a moringa tree, which is a vegetable that’s exceptionally nutritious. That’s the kind of thing that changes things. I want to start a micro-credit program where the people can sew scrubs out of beautiful African fabrics and sell them in the West. When I get back to Burundi I’ll have 300 or 400 patients waiting. You put your pack down and you start work. A lot of times patients come in with a whole list of issues like headache and back pain which is understandable because these can be older women who carry 20 liters of water twice a day for ten miles. Just as they’re ready to leave they say by the way and turns out they have a sexually transmitted infection. It’s a universal stigma and they’re embarrassed. So now we call an STI by the way. You find yourself saying by the way accidentally and then we all burst into hysterics. We need that. There’s so much tragedy and loss. There’s so much beauty too. From where we are we can look across Lake Tanganyika to the Congo. I saw these sparkling lights on the lake one night and I thought wow the Congo really has its act together with all that electricity. It looked like New York City out on the lake and it finally dawned on me those were fishermen with lanterns. There must have been thousands of them...”

Hob Osterlund is a nurse and writer in Hawaii. For more information on Helen Weld’s work, see villagehealthworks.org. Donations welcome, says Helen with a smile; even old cell phones are a great help — see hopephones.org.