The little black plastic bag

The little black plastic bag

Soon after I walked through the door into their little home, I recognized the little black plastic bag, now scrunched up with only a very little milk powder remaining in it. Where could they have possibly gotten that bag from?

I had been teaching in the classroom that morning when I recognized a familiar face at the window. It was Chesco from the village of Ikaning’ombe. He was bringing me news that there was a two-week old baby in that village who hadn’t nursed since she had been born. Please come ….

It was in that little house in Ikaning’ombe that I first eyed the little black bag. The room was filled with people, women who were neighbors, all carrying their babies. It was so crowded with women and babies it was hard to figure out who was who. The sick mom was lying on a mat on the ground coughing and shivering. Her body was so cold, and she looked so frail, but she smiled at me. I learned that her name was Zawadi and that it was a couple of months ago at a pre-natal clinic that she had learned that she was HIV positive. The stress of being pregnant plus being HIV positive opened the door to her getting TB. It will always be a mystery how she had come home from the hospital without TB medications – they are after all totally free in this country – but the fact is that here she was back home in her village, clearly with TB and totally without any medication. I learned that in the two short weeks since her baby had been born, Zawadi had been to four different medical facilities, but it was only at the last one that they told her that she had TB.

After the baby’s birth, Zawadi’s breasts remained empty – her body simply was too weak to produce any milk – and that left the family in a most difficult situation. In some parts of the world a wet nurse (another mom who could nurse the baby) would volunteer to nurse a newborn in this kind of situation, but that is something that for one reason or another in these villages has been a cultural taboo for centuries. Given the rate of HIV in this area, it’s probably very fortunate that it’s a taboo!

The beautiful little baby girl was in the arms of a very loving aunt. She told me that the milk powder from the little black bag which had kept her alive was almost all gone now and they didn’t know what to do anymore. And it was then that the whole room seemed to come alive to tell me all about the little black bag.

It was at Kibao Hospital (the third medical facility Zawadi went to) where she met a woman named Jamila, one of my friends. I had sent Jamila, who was 21 and pregnant and HIV positive, to that hospital in a last ditch attempt to save her life. She had reached the point where she could hardly eat anymore, and the journey was a long one to the hospital and I didn’t know how long she would be there, and so when I sent her off, I gave her some of the high protein cereal that I normally give to little kids who are malnourished, and I gave her a black plastic bag with milk powder. And it was there in the hospital ward that Jamila and Zawadi’s lives intersected ever so briefly for an important moment in time. It was there that something totally beautiful happened. Jamila who knew nothing but the most abject poverty her whole life found herself lying in a bed next to Zawadi, and it was there that Jamila gave Zawadi the little black bag with all of her remaining milk powder. It was that milk powder that kept that baby alive for two weeks. Not that regular milk powder is what a newborn needs, not by any means at all, but at least it was something. It was the total selflessness on the part of Jamila that saved Zawadi’s baby. As hard as her own life was and as desperate as her own situation looked, Jamila had found another woman whose life was harder and whose situation was even more desperate. And she showed a woman she had only met hours earlier a tremendous act of kindness to try to help her save her baby’s life.

In a fairy tale world, stories like this should end happily. Jamila would return to her village, have a healthy baby. Zawadi would return her village, her baby would live. And the two families would live a wonderful life of friendship and joy brought together by a “chance” meeting at the hospital that people would talk about for years. But our world here is no fairy tale world. Jamila did return to the village. And she did give birth to her baby. But her baby died, and the following morning she died as well. She never told me, or anyone else I know, about the little black bag and the milk powder and the woman she had met in the hospital whose breasts were empty and who had nothing to feed her child. She had just quietly done the right and good and kind thing.

One day years from now I hope I have the chance to tell that little girl about how her momma met up with Jamila who gave her a little black plastic bag with milk powder which her mother used to feed her because she had nothing in her breasts to give her. I wish I could say that her own mother would be around to tell her daughter the story, but Zawadi died herself, and so neither of those women will be around to tell the story to this little girl. I pray she grows up to be a godly woman who will love God and serve Him and let Him use her to do acts of kindness to those whose needs will be greater than her own.

Baby formula is a huge expense and is far out of reach any one in these villages. I am continually grateful for the beautiful mountain of baby formula that blesses my home. It represents life for the most vulnerable – not just this little baby but for all of the little infants born to HIV-infected moms here in our villages. My living room is full of cases of it and I always have a few cans in my car. And that is why in the village of Ikaning’ombe I was able to run back out to the car, pull out cans of formula, and show the all of those aunts and neighbors in the house how to use the formula. Baby loves it. And she is starting to fill out already. Three days later she already weighs 1.95 kilos – a number which makes me shudder at how much she must have weighed before – but a number which already gives me hope for this little girl. She’s going to make it.