It always seems impossible until it is done.” – Nelson Mandela.
“Me, judgmental? Of course not! … that’s how I saw myself until I met Meniswa. I was in Africa, six months into my 2 year physiotherapy assignment with NZ Volunteer Services Abroad.
“Come with me, Mary” said the tireless Xhosa social worker. “I want you on this home visit”. We endured the usual bumpy ride on the potholed Transkei road, and then walked across the fields to reach a house. It looked reasonably comfortable, by Transkei standards. So far so good.
There was no response to our knocks and calls. We wandered around the back of the house, past goats and chickens. We found our client, a 16 year old with severe athetoid cerebral palsy. She was slithering around on a grass mat filthy with flies, chicken droppings and blood from her period. A dilapidated wheelchair was parked nearby. The cheerful chickens were her only company.
My thoughts? “What am I suppose to do? Do they expect miracles?” I just wanted to get out of there.
Fortunately the social worker was not going to let me away with that. A neighbour came over, and we established that Meniswa lived with an aunt who was at work. Meanly, I thought, “That aunt only has her for the disability allowance.”
We left a message for the aunt to bring Meniswa into the craft centre for disabled Xhosa youth, where I was based.
Much to my surprise, waiting for me at the centre next morning was a well-scrubbed Meniswa, and her aunt, who had taken the day off work. Through an interpreter I established that Meniswa’s mother had died of AIDS. Her grandmother had then looked after her, but she too died. It was an all too familiar story in that part of the world.
We set to work. With help and encouragement we were able to get Meniswa to sit and balance, which amazed and delighted the aunt. We devised an illustrated home programme of exercises, including the instruction to keep practising your beautiful smiles. I wrote a pleading letter for an ” all ground” wheelchair.
On subsequent visits it was obvious the home programme had been followed. There was a rapid improvement in Meniswa’s physical abilities. We continued making home visits and involved the local community in Meniswa’s therapy. We did more form filling, made more phone calls for that elusive wheelchair.
The only thing left was for me to learn my lesson and reflect upon my hasty judgement. The aunt was not someone who, as I’d assumed, didn’t care about her niece. She just lacked any knowledge of how to help. She needed understanding, knowledge, resources and encouragement.
Thank you for teaching me that, Meniswa.
Mary Morwood lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. Alongside a physiotherapy career in the public health sector in Australia, New Zealand and England, she has been fortunate in having the experience of working in Sri Lanka, India, Africa and Bougainville through New Zealand and Australian Volunteer Services Abroad. She has also had 2 short health-related volunteer experiences in Nepal and Myanmar.
Especially in her work in Sri Lanka and with Tibetan refugees, Mary saw first hand the need for Amnesty International, and is an active supporter of a Dunedin Amnesty group.