A short story by Zainub E. Dala
There are dead branches of acacia trees littered all over this place. This hospital. In concrete courtyards and parking lots, finding their place amongst lustrous machinery, expensive cars of red and silver; and open garbage bags spilling their contents lavishly, there are dead branches of acacia trees all over this place. This hospital.
Tumbleweeds, they become, rolling their thorny shapes in the rare breeze of a boiling African Summer. Plastic shopping packets, the colours of which have long ago faded, giving no identity to their once commercial prowess, fly up, then down, and finally they settle, joining the rotting fruit peels, torn diapers, syringes. This hospital.
“What’s with the branches?” I casually ask a busy nurse. She stops her hands that bear needles and vials. She widens her eyes, and looks directly into mine, the sharp black corn rows on her head glisten with sweat. The air-conditioning doesn’t work here. It never did.
“The branches,” I persist, “What’s with all those dead tree branches everywhere I look?”
“Siesie,” she huffs, and shakes her head, “there are some things you people would never understand.”
I am affronted. Not because she refers to me as “you people.” I am affronted because she doesn’t stop her work, to answer my question.
But here, in this hospital, nobody has the time. Scuttling through corridors that have been polished an earthy red, important diligent professionals go about their days. A herd of young doctors swarm anxiously around themselves, discussing in whispered tones sizeable words in well pronounced Latin, the language of love poetry, and the language of disease.
They are waiting for the alpha-male, the uber intelligent Professor to come charging through the doors, firing questions at them about case no 1 and case no 2. Often-times I nurture the idea of stopping his booming voice and asking him in a language we all understand if he knows the names of the people that are case no 1 and case no 2. I join the herd, possibly the weakest in it, for wanting to ask these questions.
And ostensibly the weakest, because I am a mere physiotherapist in a herd of doctors. I am learning fast these days, here, as well as in life, there is always hierarchy. Which must be respected. And there are divides. Which must be fostered. We all know our place.
I sometimes wish it were simple for me. Like it is simple for most of the others that have been forced by pieces of paper written by distant politicians to be posted to this hospital. They call it “Mandatory Community Service for Medical Professionals”. We arrived like fishes, beached to flop around frantically, opening and closing our mouths in shock. We saw nothing like this in our years as students. I just remember endless days spent in lecture halls, listening to lecturers who wore neatly pressed designer clothes, telling us of an abstract concept called Course 364 – “Intro and Principles of Community Physiotherapy.”
Course 364… Sheaves of photocopied notes, and a stifling bandage of glossy books that know their place in the medical library. At least they have been allocated two shelves, instead of one. Still, they talk to our eighteen year old minds in warbled accents. American and European researchers and egalitarian experts, all claiming printing rights over their opinions of how to solve Africa’s “health issues.”
But, me, standing in a ward that is crowded to bursting with the sick and the dying asks, “What the hell did they know about Africa’s health issues anyway?”
The ward is dirty, they all are. Not just dirty in a ramshackle kind of way, the kind that comes with occasionally not doing the dusting. Dirty in the way that you tip-toe around blood-soaked sheets and piles of used bed-pans. Nothing glossy and of great magnitude like Course 364. When we arrived here, in this hospital as new, fresh graduates in our clean navy uniforms, our bright eyes dulled and clouded over with storms of disappointment.
It has been almost two months now, and shocked eyes became horrified eyes, and now slowly, like everyone we pass in the corridors, they have become dead eyes.
I wish it was easy for me, like it is easy for the three other interns that have been placed here. They know…actually they talk often, that they are here to do time in the trenches, and then to rapidly exit this world.
There’s Kenneth, blonde beautiful Kenneth, brought up in the luxury of a gated, manicured life in Durban’s answer to the Cotswolds – Kloof. He raced through his years at university with the rambunctious vigour of a rugby lock. Maybe because Kenneth nurses constant dreams of becoming the team physic for the Sharks. And he’s well on his way. His father has already sorted out his “community service” in the Shark Tank, weekends of volunteering at King’s Park.
Sorisha – a Bollywood princess. I often-times watch her navigate her designer-shod feet through piles of bed-pans and broken X-ray machines, and wonder how she ever found herself in this profession. She complains the loudest. About the stench, the belligerent nurses, the wet mattresses, the whiff of what’s cooking in the patient’s canteen…everything. She never complains about the doctors. Her coiffed hair flicks often in the direction of suitable husbands. That she will marry a spectacled, skinny doctor with a mansion in Umhlanga, I have no doubt. This filthy hospital is her hunting ground. Perhaps I am stereotyping.
That leaves Nokulunga, a hope possibly, for devoting her life to service. But again, I am playing to archetypes. Brought up in Umlazi, a township girl to the core. Bantering with nurses in Zulu, disinterested in glamour, mildly shocked by the odorous diseased, lying in caged cots and on ward floors. A distant ugly voice inside me whispers…”her people, after all…”
I silence that voice with a reprimand pulled from a rainbow nation. But Nokulunga disappoints, perhaps even more than Kenneth and Sorisha. A brand new private practice awaits her in all its polished glory. In Umlazi, it appears, there are not many physiotherapists, and the people will be queuing outside her door. Her father has even started work on the interiors. He has even contacted all the medical aids.
I wish it were easier for me to walk away from it all, into a glittering life that smacks of suburbia. But I am scathed, I am touched, I am involved. Who will walk away from this war, cool calm and collected. None of us.
I trudge daily from ward to ward. I treat dying babies who have as much chance of survival as Mynah birds that have been driven over by taxis. Most of them are AIDS orphans, HIV positive themselves. Almost everyone I treat has TB, the newly discovered extra strength variety. I move the limbs of thieves who were shot in the buttocks when fleeing from police. I treat men who raped babies and boys who hijacked cars. Their ankles are shackled to the bed cages, making exercise and movement very near impossible. Paralysed eighty year old women with glassy eyes, who refuse to remove their “doeks” during exercises, young fresh girls with amputated legs sit in the long grass outside the ward, grooming each other’s hair into cheap synthetic braids.
The taxis arrive often like drone bees arriving to the hive in hooting crescendos. Diseased humanity spill out of their bowels onto the pavement outside the hospital’s gates. Nobody even gets out to accompany the patients to the Casualty Department, artfully positioned as far away from the gates as the mortuary. Not even the security guard who sucks at his teeth, and continues reading the “Isolezwe.” Ambulances never arrive. There are none. Or at least there are many, but very few actually run, and the ones that do have probably gone running errands to the Hungry Lion Chicken outlet.
In the tea lounge, a nurse flops exhaustedly onto a fraying chair. Her shaking head and constant” tut-tuts” make me look in her direction. It is she same nurse I once asked about the dead tree branches.
“Eish Siesie,” she says disconsolately, “The fridges are full! There is no more place in the mortuary. Now they must lie on the streets, then someone upstairs will smell what KwaZulu Natal smells like.”
I regard her intently. She sips tea from a chipped cup with the faded blue words emblazoned on the side: “Humane Healing for All. Conference 2011”.
“The tree branches…” she says distantly, and I know she remembers me for my long ago question.
“Our people, they bring the branch of a tree to the place where a loved one has died. The spirit of the dead enters the branch, and the branch is taken back home to their village to find peace.”
Speechless, and stupid, I sit. No words come to my mouth. Everything would sound like platitudes. In silence I sip.
I know that very few of these tree branches find their way back home. I know because their gnarled corpses lie in courtyards and dusty parking lots in this hospital, forgotten, stepped and driven over. I know that there are many ghosts that haunt this place.
I do not know much about KwaZulu Natal. I have lived here my entire life. I was born on a sugar cane plantation in the deepest and most beautiful part of this place. My childhood playground has been the grass, the sky, the streams and the trees. But I do not know anything at all. Ask me about the beauty of the Drakensburg, the wild verdure of rural Zululand, the setting sun and the thunderous rivers. I can tell you nothing.
What I can tell you is that in the hundreds of villages. Places like Magudu, Kwambonambi, Babanango and Msinga. In these places there are many acacia trees, whose branches reach up to the beautiful heavens. Their branches wait. SLQ