Anita & Naomi: A Tale of Heartbreak and Hope

Anita & Naomi

Anita & Naomi

Anita is twenty-two, although she looks and acts much older. Traced across her taught face are lines of care and deprevation. Her little girl, Naomi, is two months old. I wrote about her in an earlier post. When I saw Anita today, she hadn't eaten in the last 24 hours. Naomi was crying for milk, but it became evident that Anita had little to give.   

Anita is a widow. Her husband was a Congolese soldier and went missing in the fighting around Goma, in the northeast of Congo. After a lengthy investigation, it was confirmed that he was killed in the line of duty. When he fell, she was carrying their second child.

A widow in a war-torn region, she returned to her parents in the north of Burundi. She is a member and regular attender at Pastor Timothy's church in Rugombo, where we held the conference this year. Her only means of support is the slight widows’ pension she receives from the Congolese Army, although she has rarely actually received any funds.

In order to collect her pension, she must travel to Congo DR. Unfortunately, the price of travel there and back consumes the entire amount of the pension. In order to try and make things work, she enlisted a "friend" who was to collect the money for her so that she could make the trip once every three months. This still eats up a third of the funds, but it is better than nothing. Not surprisingly, the "friend" proved to be dishonest and absconded with all the cash. (Amy is sitting next to me as I write this. At the last sentence, she shook her head and whispered emphatically, "That is…absolutely…unbelievable." I told her the sad truth is that it is all too believable.) 

If one would think that Anita’s parents would be there to support her, one would be wrong. Her parents aren't believers. According to Timothy, "They are drunkards." Instead of turning to Christ, they trust the local witchdoctors. What little money Anita can scrape together, they bully out of her for drink. 

To make matters worse, she has been diagnosed with tuberculosis. We believe little Naomi also has TB as she was born with a cough. Anita is unable to buy food, let alone purchase medical care and prescription drugs. I confess that her bleak future has tugged at my heart all day. I must regularly pause when I speak in order to regain my composure. I keep turning my back on those around me so I can wipe my tears. 

I learned long ago that a believer shouldn't pray about something about which they are unwilling to be involved. As James teaches,

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" (James 2:15-16 NIV84)

When I held Naomi in my arms at the baby dedication, I prayed earnestly for her. Can I now say to her mother, "Keep warm and well fed," and do nothing? The answer is obvious. Amy and I each arrived at the same conclusion without speaking to one another. When we shared our thoughts, we were of one mind. If we could help, we would. 

So Amy began searching the internet (slow work here in Burundi) for treatments for TB. I began investigating how much money would be involved in feeding Anita and her little boy (about two years old I think), who appears to be the only healthy one in the family. Here’s what we discovered.

The governments of central Africa are united in providing free TB testing and treatment to all people. They recognize that TB spreads so rapidly that they need to be proactive to prevent an epidemic. Amy’s connection at the clinic proved to be invaluable at this point. They knew all about the free clinic. 

Flory and I made arrangements to have Timothy bring Anita and Naomi to Bujumbura on the bus. They made their way to the clinic where Amy is volunteering and Anita collapsed on a bed. Little Naomi was lying beside her. When Flory and I arrived, I went in to wake her. She was drenched in sweat, and you could tell it took everything she had to struggle to her feet. Timothy helped to steady her as she made her way to the consultation room where Amy and Jackson examined her. 

While Anita was being examined, I went to the bed where Naomi was lying. She was fidgeting and restless, which I took to be a good sign. At least she wasn’t on death’s door as I feared. No, Noami was merely hungry. I picked her up and held her close. I began singing the only song I know in Swahili. 

Yesu anapenda watoto. Yesu anapennda watoto. Ni Yesu, Bwana Yesu. Alikufa qua mtu, qua sababu ya zambi. Yesu anapenda watoto.

(Jesus loves children. Jesus loves children. Jesus is our Lord. He died upon a tree, because of our sins. Jesus loves children)

This helped a little, but what I really needed was a bottle or a pacifier. I’ve seen neither since I’ve been here in Africa. So I did what I did when my children were infants—I used my little finger as a substitute. She began to suck greedily and stared into my face as I sang. I’m not at all sure she had the ability to focus, but she knew someone, at least, was there. Her momma came back in a little bit and took her to nurse. I don’t think she had much milk, but what she had, she gave.

Naomi at two months.

Naomi at two months.

While Anita was being examined, she stated that she had been ill since February, while she was pregnant. She exhibited all the classic signs of TB: night sweats, swollen glands behind the ears, lack of energy, lack of appetite, (severe) weight loss, cough, fever and pain. Since Naomi was born with a cough, it’s nearly certain that she also has TB. With this diagnosis, Jackson wrote out the necessary referral for the clinic, and we all climbed into the minivan. Flory was driving, and his wife Amina came along for moral support, as she knew Anita. Pastor Timothy was there for the same reason, but also to serve as translator from Swahili to Kirundi. Jackson and Amy were there to answer any of the questions the free clinic might have. Despite a complete lack of useful medical skills, I also rode along simply because I was concerned.

When we arrived, we were brushed aside, being told that the person we needed to see had already gone home, and we needed to come back on Friday. Call it hubris, call it swagger, call it American arrogance, call it a combination of the three, but this raised the hackles on my neck. I began saying very loudly that we were notcoming back later and that they were going to call in the appropriate people right now! I’m pretty sure I embarrassed Amy, for she began tugging at my arm to draw me away. I was, however, having none of it. I wanted names. I wanted phone numbers. I wanted someone to care, for heaven’s sake. 

The loud mzungu drew the curious and the concerned to gather in the office. I’m not sure if they were speculating about what kind of trouble I could cause or about of what kind of trouble I was about to become. Fortunately someone appeared and assured us that they were accepting Jackson’s diagnosis. The reason we had to return on Friday is because they only dispense medicine once a week. It just wasn’t feasible to open the bottle for every person who came in, evidently because that would spoil the medicine. I could live with that and turned my attention to the immediate problem of transportation and food.

I provided for Anita’s transportation to Rugombo. Timothy called the church and instructed them to purchase food and transportation back to Bujumbura on Friday. So much for the short term needs, but clearly more needed to be done.

After much consultation with Flory and Timothy, we concocted a plan. We all agreed that we couldn’t just give her money for a varitey of reasons, primary among them being her parents would probably either steal it or bully it out of her. So we decided that we would place money on account at a local merchant who was also a member of the church. 

We also agreed not to provide too much food at once. Not only was there the issue of pests and spoilage, there would also be the temptation for her parents to take some of the food and sell it for drink. In her weakened condition, there would be little she could do to stop them. 

So we determined that she should walk daily to the nearby shop and draw out that’s day’s supply of beans and rice. The beans are an important source of protein to make milk and boost the immune system. The rice provides the carbohydrates needed for energy and helps make a more complete protein when mixed with the beans. The plan will cost $50 a month and will keep her and her little boy fed and provide milk for Naomi. 

Amy and I agreed to ensure that she has food for the next year. This should be plenty of time for the medicine to work and for her to regain full health. There is no way we can sleep at night if we sit idly by. We’re hoping that others will be moved by this need and help with her support as well. But if not, we will do it alone. 

All the while I was around Anita, I never saw her smile save for once. All the while she held the vacant, hopeless stare that hunger and disease inflict. It was only at the end, when we were moving her toward the van to take her to the bus station that she smiled. I spoke to Flory. Flory spoke to Timothy. Timothy spoke to Anita. I told her that we were going to ensure that she and her baby got the medicine they needed. And we were going to ensure that she had enough food for the next year. She didn't seem to comprehend what we were saying, so I told her again.

"Anita, you're not going to be hungry any more."

That's when she turned, faced the wall, placed her forehead on rough plaster…and smiled.