Frustration and anger came yesterday in throbbing, repetitive doses as I held down a little boy’s arms so a nurse could give him two shots in the thighs. He wailed on the hospital bed. I furrowed my brow and tried to concentrate. I tried to understand but couldn’t, didn’t want to.
It was neglect for the sake of neglect, utter disregard for a child, and I was angry. I still am. I feel powerless. I’m shaken.
Rethabile is a double orphan and a former client of TTL who spent six months in the safe-home last year. He went home happy and healthy, to a family that includes his grandmother and his aunt. The TTL staff had high hopes.
It wasn’t long before our outreach team realized the family was neglecting Rethabile, giving the food provisions to other children, leaving Rethabile filthy, untouched, unloved, unfed, unwanted.
There was much back and forth before Rethabile was graduated from the TTL program.
Fast-forward to last week, when Rethabile’s aunt brought him to TTL once more. Now a severely malnourished boy of 28 months, he had a severe rash that was causing welting all over his body and head. He had severe edema — excess watery fluid collecting in the cavities or tissues of the body — in his arms, hands, legs and feet. His feet were so swollen they looked like balloons that would pop with a needle prick.
His aunt had skipped the hospital because she didn’t want to stay there with her nephew, even though that was clearly where he needed to be. She just wanted to dump him at TTL.
We escorted her to the hospital, where we told her we would pay for the bills and check in on her again the next day. The next day, we found she had left after talking to some nurses, who told her to see the doctor. Not wanting to stay at the hospital, she had taken Rethabile back to his village — and in such horrible condition.
I was confused by the situation. I knew the aunt and grandmother were caring for other kids as well, and that the food situation in the home was unstable. I know of the difficulty of hygiene in a packed rondaval, and sympathized.
Still, knowing Rethabile was suffering, TTL had to do something.
Yesterday, Matello, our outreach coordinator, managed to get the police to go with her to Rethabile’s home to talk to the family. Once there, they were appalled.
I had just returned from Maseru when Matello arrived at TTL with Rethabile and his grandmother, who had agreed to accompany her grandson to the hospital at the insistence of the police.
I drove the group to the children’s ward, and Matello and I spoke about the situation.
Rethabile looked even worse than before — no surprise. He was filthy. Matello pointed out his long fingernails caked in dirt and stuffed with dried papa. He had a constant cough. His feet were still swollen, and were ice cold to the touch.
All the other children in his family had appeared well. Weren’t sick. Weren’t malnourished. Why him?
After the doctor admitted him, I helped the nurse hold him down as he received the first of many shots. I was also holding down the anger. I felt it rising and cleared my throat.
The thoughts ran quick: Who in their right mind…? Why…? Didn’t they realize…?
Then: Was it their fault? Was the poverty to blame? Were there alternatives? Were they as devastated by this as we are? Was this neglect or lack of resources?
Then I thought of the other healthy kids, and the uncut fingernails, and the refusal to go to the hospital until the police came, and the filthy clothes…
The anger boiled up again, and again I suppressed it, consciously making sure that it wasn’t escaping through my hands as I held poor Rethabile to the bed.
“It’s OK,” I cooed gently. But I wonder if that’s true.
The TTLF Fellow is a representative of the North American organisation Touching Tiny Lives Foundation. Based for one year in Mokhotlong, Lesotho, the TTLF Fellow serves in an administrative support capacity for the Basotho charity Touching Tiny Lives (TTL).