The first time I met Ella I liked her.
She and her husband had walked all the way from the village of Mkonge to see me. They had used their life savings to go and see some healer in some other village very far away, but all that happened was that the lump on her breast opened up and the life of this beautiful woman had begun to drain out. The tumor was eating through her chest. Over the course of six months, we worked to get Ella tested for HIV, get all of the paperwork done so she could get a referral to the cancer hospital in Dar es Salaam, and then to actually get her there. She had her breast removed and then she endured six months of chemotherapy, but she returned here to our village a grateful and very hopeful mother. But when she got back here, I looked at where the breast had been I could see new satellite tumors forming there, and under her arm, and stretching around on to her back. HIV just makes everything worse. They were so small, but they were there. I have these dear doctor friends in America who help me and I sent pictures to them by email. What they said confirmed what I feared: it wouldn’t be long for dear Ella. She felt no pain though, and she was out in the village, visiting everyone she knew, spreading cheer everywhere she went.
Over the last few months those tumors grew into a massive watery mess again. Keeping a supply of bandages and gauze in stock for her was so hard to do here. I’ve learned that disposable diapers, as hard as they are to obtain, do the job wonderfully. It was her sixth-grade daughter who became her primary care giver, faithfully changing the bandages every couple of days and giving her mother her medicines and pain relievers. This daughter kept coming to our clinic to get the medicines and bandages whenever she ran out and we would visit Ella and try to help out as much as we could. Ella remained hopeful to the end thinking that she would soon be returning to the cancer hospital for more treatment, but I knew that she would never last there. It was Dr. Leena who talked to Ella’s husband to explain that there was no more hope, and that even the long trip to the city would probably be too much for her body, and to die in the city would mean immeasurable hardship for him to bring her body back to the village for burial. He was in tears when she told him. The last time I saw Ella alive with what little voice she had left she was gracious, hopeful, and thankful for our “help”. This lovely Ella died a couple days later leaving a loving husband and four sweet children. I will miss her, and I will miss the way she always would put her hands together as if in prayer and point towards heaven. A woman of great faith until the very last.
There would be no sadness in my heart today if I had never met Ella. I would feel no grief if I had just stayed in my classroom teaching English. But I would have missed out not knowing her. And I am glad that there is that day when we will all be together again. We might be sad, but we have hope, and I cling to that hope in this sea of sadness.
I love teaching, but I love the life here in our village that goes on outside of the classroom as well. Hundreds of people are gathered here today at our HIV/AIDS clinic, and Msafiri and Dicta and the rest of us will be working until nightfall. Ella’s daughter won’t be coming today to get medicines and diapers and bandages for her mother. But that little girl's father and her younger brother will be here for our HIV/AIDS clinic, and I'll go visit her and her little brothers and sisters at their home before I head off to America the end of this month. I do want to make sure that those kids stay in school. And it will be good to remember Ella. I can see her putting her hands together in prayer and pointing to heaven with that smile of hers on her face. May their father teach those kids to be like their mother.