As I brace myself to blog about day 3 which is the first day of the conference, I pre-warn that this particular blog will be longer, a little less fluffy, a tad bit tedious, somewhat profound, and richer in information. Just like that first day of the conference was. And yes, it will be interspersed with hope, I may add.
The wake-up call wakes me up, and I do not laze in bed. I spring out of bed. Excitement and anticipation is a great adrenalin rush. An exciting 5 days are about to unfold. I have nearly memorized the itinerary by heart. I think I know exactly what we’re gonna be doing over the next 5 days. I discover, in the next 5 days, yet again, that there is a stupendous difference between the theoretical and the practical.
I get ready and change into my more “conference-friendly” attire. I check, for the umpteenth time if I have with me my notepad, my Dictaphone, my smaller notepad, my many many pens (what if one of them refuses to work?) although I know conferences always have pens aplenty. I check myself in the mirror many a time. The kajal I put in a hurry is a little too dark for a professional meeting, but I give up on the idea of reducing it…..it’s too messy and complicated, apart from the fact that my kajal defines me. I’m just being a little nervy and overly-critical of my appearance…..classic signs of my being excited.
In spite of all that effort of rushing, I barely get ten minutes to gulp down a tiny bit of the amazing spread of the buffet breakfast. But at breakfast, I’m happy to finally meet my two other colleagues I have not met until now on this trip. There is Rina, our most senior team member, a renowned columnist. Disciplined and in total command of her work, she inspires awe. What I am pleasantly happy to discover over the coming days is also Rina’s great sense of humour and playfulness. And then I meet Rose. Spunky, smart and strong – that’s our Rose. Women should learn a thing or two from her.
Once we are in the conference hall, we are greeted by our 2 co-ordinators from USA, Debbie and Charlotte. Two truly amazing women whose dedication to the betterment of the reproductive health and well-being of the people of the world is unflinching. Debbie is dependable, kind and a brick. Charlotte has a calming effect, is a wonderful conversationalist, and I particularly enjoy her company as she and me share a special interest in gender issues. Together, these two handle this sprightly group of journalists, and make sure we go home safe, having learnt what we came to learn.
As I am writing this, I wonder if my reader is thinking why I use such superlative praise-filled adjectives for each one of my team members. But the fact is, I am just fortunate……fortunate to have met these amazing women who are much more than what I have described them to be.
The conference begins. There is an orientation. We review our agenda for the coming week. Our first speaker of the day, who we saw a lot more of in the coming days, is Negash, representing the PHE (Population, Health & Environment) Integrated Development Approach in Ethiopia. Negash’s talk tells us a lot about Ethiopia – that this mountainous country is the 2nd largest in Africa, that it has more than 80 ethnic groups, that the urban growth is twice as much as the rural, that there is unemployment and poverty and some 5.5 million orphaned/vulnerable children in the country. And one of the biggest problems is soil erosion, climate change and deforestation. PHE has a holistic approach in which they come up with integrated, ingenious solutions to solve each one of the problems of the people of this country – Health, education, food, shelter. As one of their catch-lines says: Harmonizing the link between People and Nature.
After this session, I know a little bit more about Ethiopia. I realize that the problems of this country are as unique as the country itself. I also find myself realizing that there is so little that we know about a country or a culture when we google it before a trip – climate, currency, capital city, tourist attractions. That is all we know. Little do we know about the intricacies of their problems and solutions. Developing countries are very
similar yet very different in many ways, just like their people.
I am constantly thinking how these solutions can be applied to problems in my country. Ethiopia has problems but it is fighting back. There is hope for better futures. If they can do it, so can Pakistan, says the idealist in me, who truly believes so.
Young and smart, Dr Adnew is next. He is representing Pathfinder. He tells us about Addis Tesfa, a Cervical Cancer Prevention Project among HIV-Positive women in Ethiopia. We bombard him with eager questions. He patiently answers. Cervical cancer, as we all hopefully know, is a cancer that can be contracted by coming in contact with HPV (Human Papillomavirus). Screening in time can save precious lives. Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer among women deaths in Ethiopia, with more than 6000 lives of women claimed by it yearly. Later in the week, we are to visit the centre where the project is running, we are told.
On my return, I instruct myself, I need to write more about this, as more awareness is needed about Cervical Cancer prevention in Pakistan. Even if a single person learns something out of a write-up, my job is done! People will sometimes ask why journalists only bring the problems to light. Why don’t they write about happier stuff? There are already so many problems in the world; why add to the misery with more melancholy details? To them, I say that journalists bring both problems AND solutions to light. Awareness is part of the solution in any given situation. Brushing issues under the rug is never the solution, whether the problem is of a country or of a relationship, at home or at work place.
We get a lunch break in which we rush for lunch, then to our rooms to freshen up. Everybody has to meet in the hotel lobby at a designated time. But it is not easy to get the group together. The last minute delays, the waiting up for one of us who forgot something in the room or decided to visit the washroom one last time…. It was all part of the experience. So was the look on Charlotte’s and Debbie’s faces which said: “will you all be seated in the bus already? We have lots of ground to cover today”.
On the bus, I am seated next to Charlotte. We share a lot of interesting details about gender-related issues worldover, and what is being done about them. Issues like rape, domestic violence and FGM. She gives me invaluable input. As the bus moves on the winding roads of Addis, I am spending that time learning from Charlotte.
Our destination is the world famous Hamlin Fistula Hospital, Addis Ababa. I have heard so much about it from Dr Shershah Syed, an unsung hero of Pakistan who has set up a hospital on the same lines in Koohee Goth near Karachi. Dr Shershah had sold all he had to travel to Hamlin and learn Fistula-repair surgery decades ago. He raves about it. I am about to find out why.
For those who do not know, Obstetric Fistula is a severe medical condition in which a hole develops between either between the rectum and vagina or between the bladder and vagina, usually due to prolonged obstructed labour. The result is incontinence. No control over urine or stool results in social alienation and shame. The patient suffers immense psychological trauma and social ostracism. These women smell, leak and are subsequently often deserted by their own families. They are stopped from hugging their children or mingling socially. They are often driven out of homes, forced to stay in small huts as outcasts. They are afraid to leak so they reduce food and water intake drastically and become malnourished. The psychological impacts are of course severe.
In 1974, God-sent for the patients of fistula in Ethiopia, the husband and wife team of Drs Reginald and Catherine Hamlin set up this hospital. They were pioneers of the corrective surgery for this disease, and here they performed and taught the surgery. Hilary Clinton was to visit it the next day. Oprah Winfrey was one of the major donors with a hospital wing bearing her name on it. Hamlin is quite a glam-celeb place and a favourite of the bold and the beautiful, we discussed as we reached the gates.
Once inside, we are spellbound for a few minutes. Sprawling over hills, with a river running nearby (which is why Dr Hamlin’s book about this hospital is titled “The hospital by the river”), this place had a serenity and beauty about it that cannot be explained. It can just be felt. Bougainvilleas, honeysuckles, lavenders……….flowers were abundant. Just standing there was therapeutic. The stench of the suffering of women with fistula who were still awaiting surgery and who walked around the gardens with tiny plastic bags carrying their leaked urine must be sucked away by these trees and flowers and the love of these doctors. A voice inside me said this is what hospitals should be like.
The tour revealed that the hospital was fastidiously clean. Women often come here in very bad conditions, with their limbs curled up and shriveled due to malnourishment and lack of normal routines due to alienation. Apart from corrective surgeries, the rehabilitation includes their physiotherapy to make them walk again. Their nutritional requirements are taken care of. They are taught skills like embroidery and handicrafts so that once treated, they go back to normal lives as self-respecting, empowered and independent women. They are taught basic maths and home economics to help them in the days to come. All of them seemed busy in some form of activity. Some of them had little children with them. They are given psychological counseling as well. A holistic approach to patient care. The affection of the doctors and nurses was so genuine for the patients that it was touching beyond words can convey. As Shai aptly said : “ This is what healing should be like”.
On return from the hospital, we are all too awe-struck to chill and giggle. We also have an early morning departure for Fiche, a mountainous rural area, for a night stay. I pack a night bag for the trip the next day. Breakfast and lunch was heavy enough. Biscuits, chips and tea will do, I say to myself. I had bought these lifesavers from one of the usual tiny general stores in Ethiopia, which they sweetly insist on calling “Super Markets”. Whining and self-pity about non-halaal meat and missing Pakistani food hardly seems appropriate after having met the women at Hamlin. Once in bed, I sigh with satisfaction. A day well ended. A day well spent.