Bridges of Compassion
Plenty Bulletin Vol.14, No. 1
In late November 1997, we had the privilege of journeying to Senegal, West Africa to participate in the opening of Shifa Al Asqaam, a free clinic established through the work of the African American Islamic Institute with the support of UNICEF and the United Nations Department for Family Planning. The African American Institute is an international NGO founded by Shaykh Hassan Cisse to foster understanding between the Muslim and non-Muslim world by building bridges of understanding, compassion and respect. The institute is involved in humanitarian activities and its mission includes feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, protecting the interests of women and children and fostering greater understanding and peace among mankind. Richard Schoenbrun had participated in the medical relief initiative in 1993 when the clinic was operating out of donated space in the school, so it was wonderful to see the beautiful, state of the art clinic that evolved after these initial efforts.
Our job was to assist in the opening of the clinic by providing technical assistance in setting up the dental and midwifery clinics, to assist in the training of village health care workers and to volunteer our services as health practitioners. Since medical care is out of reach to the poor of this region, the opening of a free clinic is a life-saving effort with far-reaching effects.
Early morning at the clinic compound we wake to find villagers waiting at the front gate who walk many miles in the cool dawn hours to reach us and who are willing to wait all day to be seen. We begin our day in the classroom with twenty-five students learning basic health care, such as having a caring, respectful attitude, cleanliness and sanitation, recognizing common illnesses in their area, vital signs, nutrition, healing without medications, the value of water in health care, basic care of the pregnant woman, emergency childbirth, care of the skin, and prevention of malnutrition and dehydration. The students are bright and eager to learn.
Malaria is the big killer here, especially of the very young and the very old. The incidence of malaria is on the rise due to a developing resistance to the drugs that are used to treat it. It is a disease that returns repeatedly to weaken the host. The parasite destroys red blood cells, leaving the recovering person anemic. The vomiting and diarrhea further add to the picture of dehydration, malnutrition and vitamin and mineral depletion. To top it off, the diet is very poor in iron, vitamins, and minerals, making recovery difficult. The climate is so hot and dry, with such a short growing season, that there are few fruits, vegetables, and grains grown here. Imported food is expensive. We see very few gardens here. 70% of the population is subsistence farmers scratching out a meager living from the sandy soil. Many of the people we saw had lived for years with their afflictions because of their inability to pay for medical care.
One of the important things I learned on this trip is how much health care can be taught through simple things like nutrition, hygiene, sanitation, rehydration, gardening, herbs, and safe sex. All these practices keep folks out of the medical system and can be taught by one layperson to another. No college degree needed here. I was amazed when I realized that some of the Africans I saw in sub-Sahara were unaware of their need for lots of water, one example of a small teaching that is very health enhancing. Really important information. Studying and working with David Werner’s classic village heath care book, “Where There is No Doctor,” was a great education in basic medical care and tuning in to the level of work we need to do in developing countries. Life is more precarious here and requires some tenaciousness, a clinging to the edge of the desert with sand and wind, hot sun and salty water. It breeds a kind of intelligence that is beautiful to behold. You can see it in the eyes of the children and you just want to feed it any way you can. And the payoff is big. One man said to me, “Your husband, he pulled my tooth. I love him too much. I will make dur for him.” (A way of saying “I will take care of him always” — “dur” is like dowry.)
We were treated with the greatest respect. We were immersed in the culture, sharing meals with Dr. Askari and her family. We were housed in the best of quarters. This clinic will be relying mostly on volunteer medical staff and welcomes short stays. We found our stay to be a very enriching experience.