Her name is Elizabeth.
Several months ago when we first met her we were unsure of her name. Some thought Katherine, some thought Elizabeth and still some thought Mary. It became a humorous subject seeing as we did not know how to address this woman with whom we had become friends. But now I can say, with confidence, that her name is Elizabeth.
The first time that Elizabeth approached me, was in early October 2009. It was Tami’s introductory visit to the Mbaruku Dust Babies and, sadly, Lyndsay and Lauren’s final. It was sunny and windy – a day like any other at Kikopey. Dust flew in all directions, sometimes coming together in a kind of tornado funnel that whipped around the camp, nearly collapsing worn out tents in its path.
“This one is called Wairimu.” I turned around to find a petite yet strong woman. She wore a kanga wrapped around her small waist in which was tucked a faded black button down shirt that was several sizes to big. A gust of wind came at us; it billowed her shirt and revealed bony shoulders and strong arms. A cloth wrapped around her head and tied in back of her neck in the Kikuyu fashion accentuated a feminine and gentle face. She smiled at me, a big, toothy grin, and gestured toward the young girl clutching her right hand. “She is not my biological daughter, but I love her just the same.”
Wairimu, dusty like the rest, hid her face in her mother’s kanga, and turned just one nervous eye toward me. I could see a couple of sores on her face and legs and one big one on her arm, peeking out from under the tattered pink t-shirt. I bent down to her height and gently touched her shoulder. “Hi Wairimu, would you like to join us?”
The girl looked up at her loving mother who translated my question into Gikuyu. Slowly she took my hand and looked up at me, but she didn’t move. She stood between us, holding our hands and swaying slowly, a shy smile spread across her little face. “She gets nervous to play, she’s a very shy girl,” Elizabeth explained with a smile. “The mother died very young, she was the daughter of my neighbor.” Elizabeth began her story slowly, in nearly perfect English. “Wairimu was only a small baby and her grandmother was too sick and old to care for her. So, what could I do? I had to take her and raise her as my own daughter! That was five years ago.” She looked affectionately at the girl. “The problem, you see, is that I fear that her mother died of the AIDS and Wairimu has always been a very sensitive little girl. Always getting sick, always with the sores.” I looked down at the small, scabbed hand in mine, squeezed it and smiled down at its owner. Wairimu smiled back and returned the squeeze.
“That was good of you to take her in,” I looked back at Elizabeth, “there are so many orphans with nowhere to go.”
“I have four orphans who live with me now,” she exclaimed, “and four more of my own!”
I looked at Elizabeth again and thought about all she must have sacrificed to keep those eight terrified children alive for the past two years. Like the rest of the IDP’s in Kenya, Elizabeth was chased from her home and left homeless by the violent ethnic clashes that ravaged parts of Kenya during the post-election violence in December 2007. She and her family fled to showground area in Nakuru where aid agencies provided refugee tents and small rations of food. Her tent, which was only meant to be used for up to six months, was then moved to a dusty piece of land in Kikopey in 2009 and was still inhabited by the nine of them. Saint Elizabeth.
A couple of weeks later, I crouched in a small tent with Elizabeth, Wairimu, Irene and an attractive health worker from the Naivasha Ministry of Health. “And what would you do if you learned that your girl was positive?” The woman asked Elizabeth bluntly, reading from a laminated questionnaire.
“What could I do,” Elizabeth answered confidently, “but love her the way I always have. We just want to know, one way or the other. We need to know.” My eyes stung with tears at hearing her genuine, motherly response. Elizabeth sat on a small bench in the tent, holding Wairimu on her lap. I watched in a daze as the medical worker began to explain to Wairimu what she was going to do. She then took the girl’s hand and pricked her finger to collect a sample of blood.
Wairimu’s nervous screams filled the tent as her tiny finger was squeezed and the sample was collected. A chorus of “sorry, sorry” followed, the three Kenyan women trying to calm her. Once the sample was collected and a band-aid was placed on her finger, I stuck a large, sparkly sticker on the top of Wairimu’s other hand and presented her a chocolate biscuit. She stopped crying but wouldn’t stop staring at her bandaged finger.
What followed was possibly the longest fifteen minutes of my life. Fifteen minutes. That’s how long it took to find out the HIV status of a little girl at an IDP Camp in Kikopey. A drop of Wairimu’s blood was placed on the HIV test and we waited. Waited. Waited. Elizabeth clutched her daughter and prayed silently. Irene turned toward the wall of the tent, also in prayer. The health worker held the test in her hand, casually looked around the tent at the scene, then respectfully averted her eyes. I couldn’t help but stare at Elizabeth and her daughter.
The minutes ticked by slowly, slowly, slowly. Outside the sun was setting and a cold, dark light fell over the camp. I heard the other kids laugh and sing loudly, “I said a boom-chicka-boom!” The smell of githeri from a few tents over signaled that it was almost time for dinner. And here we waited as the rest of the world happened around us.
Finally the health worker took out her mobile phone and began to read the results by its light. Elizabeth quickly joined her and they spoke in hushed whispers. I closed my eyes, afraid to learn the answer. “Praise God!” came Elizabeth’s grateful cry as she turned to Wairimu and scooped her daughter into a loving hug. She then started to dance around the small tent, stopping at each of us to share a hug and, again, thank God. That moment of pure joy is how I will always think of Elizabeth: laughing and dancing and singing praises for the health of her daughter. Wairimu was HIV free.
But the Elizabeth I found at Kikopey this week was older, weaker. She still had joy in her eyes, but something had changed. As I approached her tent, she greeted me warmly, struggling to her feet to give me a double Kenyan hug and a kiss on the cheek. She asked about how I had been and wondered about the other girls who had visited with me in 2009. She then turned to Irene and chatted in their language. I picked up some words: cancer, uterus, operation.
When Irene and I got back in the van my fear was confirmed: Elizabeth had uterine cancer. She had undergone an operation to remove a growth but, because she couldn’t pay for the operation, she was denied the painkillers. She was sent home.
“Imagine, to have cancer as an IDP!” Irene exclaimed. “Imagine!”
“To survive all that she has gone through, only to get cancer.” I echoed Irene’s disbelief. “What will happen to all of her children?”
“That is the problem.” Irene shook her head and turned back to the front of the van.
Cancer. That’s not something that is unique to IDP’s, it’s a disease that doesn’t discriminate. Cancer infects rich and poor, black and white, young and old. So many things here can be remedied with money to buy food or water or clothing. But cancer, that’s a big one, universally. Something I can’t fix with donations.
Later in the week, we returned to Kikopey and visited Elizabeth. Irene had visited the chemist and purchased groceries for her. We found Elizabeth lying on a thin mattress in her dark tent, lit by one kerosene lamp. I kneeled down beside her and held her in hug as she whispered in my ear that she was waiting for God to either take or heal her. Even in this hopeless state, this woman held on to her optimism and flashed that genuine smile. I pulled back and looked at her in the glow of the lamp, trying hard to memorize her kind face. The streaks of gray that contrasted her dark hair, the lines around her eyes left from years of smiling and laughing, the wide grin that never seemed to leave her face, despite her pain and anguish.
Her name is Elizabeth, and I don’t know how to help her. A woman who has done so much for other people, who built a loving family from orphans and who continually puts other people before herself. I asked Irene to find out more about Elizabeth’s condition. About her prognosis, if the cancer had spread and what treatment options exist in Kenya.
And what is to become of her darling children? Of Wairimu and her shy eyes, so attached to her adoptive mother. To my knowledge, Elizabeth is a single mother and, when she goes, it will orphan eight children – half for the first time, half for the second.
There are so many, too many stories here like Elizabeth’s and I’m at a loss. Her face is imprinted on my mind and no matter what ends up happening, I will tell her story.