I have been wanting to write about a lady for a long time but it has just never seemed appropriate. She has been through so much in her life and her sunny nature and drive to make the best out of a situation is so inspiring to me.
I first met Mary when she came with her 4 year old daughter to the ship to seek help. Her daughter had retinoblastoma (which I spoke about in a earlier blog). She had one eye removed last year in an attempt to stop the growth however it had come back on the other side of her face, causing her eye to protrude. As I sat and explained to her that there was nothing that we could do, she told me that her husband had left her when she was pregnant with her twins, now 9 months and that she had other children. She had been living off the kindness of her neighbours, begging food and money to be able to feed her children. She was living rent free in an unfinished house.
As we began to visit Mary and her family her laughter and joy was infectious. I found myself warming to this woman who had been through so much yet was so thankful for what she had. Part of our work is to help families in need with income generation. This generally applies if the breadwinner is the patient and will leave behind a family without income. But in this case we were able to help Mary. She mentioned that she used to have a market stall in Freetown so she wanted to set up a food stall selling basic food such as rice, onions, flour and oil. It was not possible for her to go far from her house so we arranged for a local builder to construct a stall under the porch at her house.
The day we drove her into Freetown to buy the basics to start her off, she was beaming with delight. We were able to provide very little (some rice, onions, oil) but the next week we returned she had already bought more produce and added to her stall. Every time we have gone back to visit, she has new things and has sold more. She is such a great business woman! With the money from her stall, she was able to buy some seed and plant crops such as corn to feed the family. With rainy season getting going, the humidity and dampness is perfect for growing crops. We have watched the crops shoot up, growing from seeds to almost ready to harvest in around 5 weeks! Her determination to succeed with what she has been given has been amazing.
The inside of the stall
The outside with Mary standing next to it
Sadly since we have been seeing Mary's daughter, it has still been a struggle. When retinoblastoma starts growing, it becomes a very aggressive tumour. We watched as the tumour began to take over one side of her little girls face. Her pain was always a challenge to control and her distress at the growth was so difficult to see. As the tumour began to grow through the roof of her mouth, the little girl took up more and more of Mary's time so that she could never be more than a few feet away. Mary has an older son, Ishmael, who has been incredible. During the little girls sickness, he manned the stall, did the washing, cooking and cleaning and cared for the twins. I don't know how she would have coped without him.
Ishmael with the twins
It was so difficult going through this time with Mary. Her love for her daughter was evident in the range of emotions and heartache that she experienced seeing her daughter get worse and worse. Two weeks ago her little girl died peacefully. The tumour was growing in such a way that made swallowing and breathing difficult for her. We had given her a sedative to ease her distress which mercifully had a good effect. When we went to the house the following day, the little girl had been laid out and wrapped in a shroud we had bought for the family. I was so touched that the family had waited for us before burying her. As women we were not able to bury her as she had a Muslim burial however we were there to be able to support Mary. It broke my heart when she said in Krio, 'Yu try fo me' meaning, 'You did all you could' but I know she meant it.
Since that day, we have continued to visit Mary and her family. I have a particular soft spot for the twins. Hassan, the little boy eats...a lot. He is only happy once he has a full belly and always is munching on something. He is also the king of suspicious looks, especially if you are trying to take away food! The girl, Hassanatu is affectionate and smiley. She also loves checking out your face with her hands which is not great if she has just been sitting on the dirt floor! They both know us now and it is a privilege to watch them growing up and bond with them.
Hassanatu checking out my face!
I hope to be able to continue to visit Mary up until the time that I leave. Not because she needs much support but because she now holds a special place in my heart. It is amazing to go and just spend time with her and the family, to help her to heal her grief and to feel accepted as part of their lives. This acceptance, despite the language barriers and enormous cultural barriers is an amazing thing to experience. I just love it.
Esther (in the middle) with Mary, family and friends