We traveled by school bus for two days to reach the health center. The roads from the capital, originally wide and paved and bustling with urban life, had gradually given way to dirt and dust and mud. We waited our turn on long single lanes as caravans of eighteen-wheelers passed by us in clouds of fuel exhaust and deep red dust. The trucks were laden with cargo, long planks of cedarwood and teak, stock animals piled on top of one another, cows and sheep and goats. Some were trees of bodies, men and women and children in bright colors pressed to one another and swaying precariously in the rusty truckbeds, en route to further reaches. Eventually, the rich green fields of tea and wheat and roses gave way to untamed brush; the further we went, the more our bright yellow school bus became an oddity.
Children collected on the sides of the road to watch us pass as we drove north. When we arrived at the hospital the gates of the building were still closed. Along the length of the metal fence a line of people waited patiently for the doors to open. Some smoked, others chatted. A few played dice to pass the time. Many looked ill, and moved as little as possible as the African sun began to climb over the distant mountains. Others were waiting, not for medical care, but for the arrival of the food trucks; oversized, overpowered blue tanker trucks that arrived on a weekly basis with supplies of grain, mullet, cassava, and other items from the capital.
A thick cement fence encircled the hospital facility, its walls topped with spikes of forbidding rusted metal. Just as we were beginning to perspire in the mid-morning heat, a young woman in an immaculate white nurse’s uniform arrived at the hospital gate. Opening the large padlock with an ancient-looking key, she guided us into the main auditorium of the hospital. Her name was lost in a whisper and a shy, flashing smile; she looked no more than fifteen, but as a nurse in the hospital she already knew far more about illness and death than we did.
There was no electricity in the hospital. There hadn’t been for months. We were told with some embarrassment by the administrator that, yes, the municipal government had allocated funds for the gas generator last year; there had been an inaugural ceremony, and the mayor himself had attended. The trouble, it seemed, was that the funding did not cover the copper wiring required to connect the generator to the hospital. The mayor had promised additional funding, but it had yet to materialize, and the hospital had no authorization or funds to spare. It was estimated the piping would cost 25 US dollars.
In the corner of the storage room beyond the auditorium, an ancient autoclave was cleaning speculums and other metal instruments; the heat for the device was supplied by a small wood fire, which crackled beneath the metal container and filled the room with a thin smoke.
There was a bright side, though. In the dark of a lightless hospital, in the absence of a humming, spewing gas generator, the housing shed for the equipment had become a quiet residence for local fauna. Among the goats and chickens, we were informed, had been discovered a surprise – a great crowned crane. The administrator spoke in hushed, almost conspiratorial tones, inviting us to crowd around him in the auditorium like children in a classroom. There had not been a crowned crane in this place for a generation; the last bird had been a gift of the old dictator to a local matriarch, a rumored lover. Many took the bird’s arrival as a sign; of what depended on who was whispering the tale, and what side of the war they had been on before.
Beyond the gate of the hospital, women in brightly colored polyester dresses lined up in front of a newly arrived food truck; shifting fifty pound bags of rice on their shoulders and heads, they set their faces and began the long walk home.