The first word I learned in saSwati was “Ngkesi.” It means “Sorry!”

Raleigh Fitkin Memorial Hospital is located on top of a dusty, traffic-heavy hill in Western Manzini. It has only five main buildings, which makes you think that it’ll be small and easy to navigate…except that they’re all linked together with the most jumbled mess of fucking poorly labelled, bendy, identical corridors ever. Any attempt to get from Pediatrics to the OR will inevitably end with you pushing a half-conscious, naked, shower-cap-donning child into the center of the compound’s adjoining fruit market. Thankfully, in spite of its shoddy organization and the fact that half the staff think the suggestion to wear gloves while handing HIV+ blood is HILAAAARIOUS, they are still the top hospital in Swaziland. Moreover, they’ve actually consented to bring me on board for three weeks to volunteer. SCORE!!

Here’s a quick recap of my hospital-related happenings:

Week One: I spent this week in Pediatrics, which offers the opportunity to see a wide range of ailments, from broken arms to TB to malnutrition. It also offers the opportunity to see the inside of the office a lot, since each procedure requires at least 3 steps of paperwork (most require more), and NOBODY in this country’s writing is legible (You want me to give how many mLs of what to whom??). The way around this? Make your handwriting as incomprehensible as the rest and try to follow the loops and dots as best you can. You will finish to raucous applause (“Most volunteers NEVER get the hang of the paperwork!”). By the end of the week, I was giving oral meds, taking vitals, and getting handed EVERYBODY’S bitch work. In exchange for always getting stuck with an armful of urine-soaked sheets, I was given the opportunity to administer oral medication to a critically ill baby. I got to mix her porridge, mix her meds, and pump the lot straight into her abdominal tube. Hooray! It was great and went off without a hitch except for one thing: feeding through a tube is not the same as feeding through a regular face hole. If you give porridge to someone, it must not be steaming hot. You will end up literally feeding a starving African child to death.

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Enter a weekend of pub crawling, chicken beheading, and being ingenuously offered the opportunity to be a quality control analyst for Swaziland’s leading Fish ‘N’ Chips chain restaurant.

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Week Two: OK, so this week just started – but it’s E.R., so my brain is flipping out with too much activity. Must Get Down On Blog!! There are some serious benefits to working as a volunteer in the emergency room of a hospital in a developing country. I’ll get to those later. The main disadvantage is that everyone’s so busy, nobody has bothered to communicate to each other that I don’t know a damn thing. So, when somebody points at me, and says – “Blood transfusion – bed four!!” I’m already off and running before I realize that I don’t know where the fuck Bed 4 is. Moreover, blood transfusion? From where? Am I supposed to provide it myself? Considering that sketchy rash on my bum, I’d better not. And yet, there’s no one to ask. They’ve all scuttled away to resuscitate this baby, or to induce vomiting in that teenage boy, etc. etc. etc.

The advantages are numerous and varied. First off, I’m nobody’s bitch. Nobody does bitch work in the ER, and so there’s no bitch work to shove off on me. Everything I do seems to be critical and important and worthy of laudatory praise when I do it right. (YEAH!) Secondly, all the patients I work with are either unconscious or soon to be unconscious. There’s no complaining from them. Their mothers/caretakers are so riddled with worry that they don’t have the energy to complain either. They only just have enough time to wring your hand over and over, thanking you and thanking you and thanking you again – not realizing that you’re only taking vitals, or pausing en route to somewhere else to tuck a patient’s floppy and terrifying breast back under the sheets. Also, when you work in a hospital that is 95% paid for by the Swazi equivalent of the NHS, nobody complains when you poke poke poke around looking for a supple vein to insert your IV. Mistakes are not frowned upon here, and if you are embarrassed enough to take the piss out of yourself afterwards, the patient will usually attempt to smile, and the charge nurse will acknowledge your work with the ever-common OohhOOOOhhhh. (If you want to replicate this- take a 7-year old’s way of saying OooooOOOOOOoooo while teasing a friend about a crush, then open your mouth a bit more and pull your lips taut).

I will say this, though – I was not prepared for my first death. Babies crying their little hearts out, I am ready for. A woman who has just lost her baby crying her heart out, I’m not. There’s not much to say or do when this happens, and the last thing you want to do is make the situation worse by trying to flood a grieving mother’s ears with meaningless words. I know the ER is the place for me – there is no doubt. This is something I’ll need to learn to deal with, though, and it won’t be easy. If your business is compassion, when do you shut yourself off?

Anyway, I haven’t done much actual travel around Swaziland, and it doesn’t look like I’ll have time to. Happily, I’ve been told by just about every Swazi that there’s jack shit to see, and I’d better just move on to Mozambique where I can spend my days chasing whale sharks. I reckon that’s what I’ll do. There’s another Swazi post forthcoming, but that’ll have to wait until later.

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