Zambia: Woman in Red

(Rachael’s Perspective)

Kim and I sat outside in a courtyard at the entrance to the Children’s wing of the Zambia University Teaching Hospital. We were early for our meeting with Dr. Beatrice, who we were accompanying to her malnutrition clinic in one of Lusaka’s poorer communities. We chatted about the work at hand as we enjoyed the cool morning air.

The courtyard was elevated, settled into the corner of a building with a few trees providing shade.  Women were sprinkled throughout, on the benches, on the steps, presumably waiting for something very different than what we were waiting for. We faced the entrance, watching women with babies secured to their backs in traditional wraps disappear into the entrance.

Our conversation fell off as a woman in red exited the building. With a woman on her right and a man on her left helping her walk, she shrieked and wailed.   It was much more than a cry or weeping we were witnessing.  It was an utterance from deep within, expressing an excruciating loss.  The depth of her pain was palpable. She continued to wail as the two people by her sides set her gently on the steps of the courtyard, turned and walked back into the building.  They were not family or friends, just workers that escorted her out. She sat on the steps wailing, alone.

In silence, we intuitively knew that this woman had just lost her child.  Kim left to take a walk to gather herself before our meeting. As the woman continued to wail, two ladies seated in the courtyard got up and went to her to provide comfort.  After 10 minutes, the volume of the wailing had decreased a bit.  Kim returned, we entered the hospital and proceeded to Dr. Beatrice’s office.

I like to think I have a bit of a thick skin, without being too callused. I was mentally and emotionally prepared to work with starving children and their mothers at the clinic that day. It’s a very difficult thing, however at the clinic, I know that mothers will be given the RUTF they need to nurse their children back to health.  It’s an amazing feeling to know that there’s a solution to this devastating problem.

I was not as prepared for that moment, sitting in that courtyard, witnessing the pain of the woman in red.  I couldn’t avoid the thought of the three million mothers each year that experience the loss of a child due to malnutrition. That experience of pain. Three million times over. Entirely preventable. I ‘know’ the situation. I’ve seen and heard and witnessed it before, but this moment was an acute reminder of the reasons for our work.

As we continue our feasibility study in Zambia, meeting with government officials, local and international charities and donor agencies, the needs are numerous and quite frankly can seem overwhelming at times. What we’re proposing to do in Zambia is very hard work on so many levels, but so very important.  Malnutrition is the cause of 50% of the deaths for children under the age of five.

The challenge is enormous, but instead of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation, I am overwhelmingly convinced that we, all of our partners and friends, will continue to make an ever-increasing impact. Together we will save more and more lives.

To know that we can save a mother from the pain experienced by the woman in red is truly humbling and ultimately motivating to keep pushing forward, with an even greater resolve and determination than before.

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