This week I have definitely been a “mzungu tourist.” When tourists come to Jinja, many of them visit the area in order to raft the Nile Rapids. Upon hearing the adrenaline-rushing stories from past Nile River Rafters, I gathered some of my mzungu friends together and we all took a day off to embark on a Nile River adventure! During the days leading up to our adventure and even on the morning of our adventure I wasn’t nervous at all for the white water rafting experience. It wasn’t until after we actually got onto the raft and our river guide began telling us what seemed like over 100 detailed safety instructions about rafting the incoming intense grade 4 and 5 rapids, that I began to freak out a little bit. After the tutorial, we rowed ourselves to the top of the first set of rapids. By now, I had psyched myself up for what was about to happen, and I was equally nervous as I was excited. I remember the guide yelling “okay, now STOP ROWING, HOLD ON and GET DOWN!” Suddenly our raft was immersed in river water. Just as quickly we hit the first major wave, the raft went under again leaving the six of us passengers screaming and laughing in both excitement and terror. The entire day went on pretty much as a repeat of the first ride, and with each significant set of rapids, we gained a little more confidence, yet the thrill never died. The point is, if you ever come to Jinja, do not leave without rafting the Nile, it will probably be one of the funnest experiences of your life.
I am going to share a story about one of our O4A teenagers – a 16 year old called Yiga. Yiga grew up living with his mother and five siblings in a one room, mud-brick house. Currently at 16, he has begun to work and live with a teenage friend in tiny home; the two of them sell SIM cards on the street in order to gain enough money to pay their monthly rent. Like many other teenagers in Uganda, Yiga does not attend classes because he cannot generate enough income to pay yearly school fees. Because he does not have any adult supervision he lacks the guidance that any teenager needs and what has happened to him may have come as a result.
You may remember from past blog posts that there has been a recent presidential election here in Uganda. It was the week leading up to elections that we originally met Yiga. The day we first visited him at the clinic, we were heartbroken about what had happened to this young boy, but given the chaos of the elections it was not really surprising.
During the days prior to elections, we had been hearing a number of horror stories about people being badly injured or even killed during the ongoing street campaigning parades. That whole week, we watched hundreds and hundreds of people parade down Main Street: people piled on top of trucks, men doing cartwheels in the streets, women throwing posters at spectators and young children loudly chanting the name of the candidate that they wanted to win.
The majority of these violent parades were in support of the presidential candidate named Besigye. Many of Uganda’s younger population wanted Besigye to win as they have never seen a change of government and most of them wanted the new, younger presidential candidate to win…the one who was promising them new hope, some even claiming that he would be Uganda’s “political messiah.”
This longing for political excitement and hope for a presidential savior, caused many youth to get caught up in the pre-voting uproar. They became so engaged in campaigning and politics even though children under the age of 18 cannot vote they would watch the older ones and then they themselves would get caught up in the fervor. They wanted a change, a messiah to save them from poverty, and they were not afraid to let their voice be heard. After all was said and done, despite all these efforts, and to the disbelief of many, the sitting president won his fifth term in office. He has been the president of Uganda since 1986 – 30 years.
Two days before elections, Besigye and his political party were coming through Jinja town. Although I was safely hiding from the violence at my guesthouse, I heard many rumors that the streets were flooded with angry or excited people cheering and waving signs, boda (motor-cycle taxi) drivers standing on the tops of their moving motor-bikes, people swarming Main Street trying to catch a glimpse of their political hero. Many of the men and boys had jumped on the backs of hollowed-out trucks…some of them were jammed with up to 100 people. Yiga was one of these people. On the evening of his accident, Yiga had been holding on to the back of a truck, along with dozens of other Besigye supporters. The driver was being careless and most likely not paying attention to who was jumping on and off the back of his truck. As Yiga shifted positions, his foot slipped and he fell to the ground. In the height of the commotion, the truck did not notice what had happened and continued to swerve, violently maneuvering through the noisy crowd. Yiga’s foot got caught under the wheel of the truck and the oversized, overloaded vehicle crushed the entire bottom half of his left leg, completely severing all five of his toes from his foot.
Some of the bystanders who witnessed the gruesome event quickly rushed him to the main hospital before fatal blood loss occurred. Staying at the Jinja Main Hospital might have worked out on a different day, but the problem was, the street rioting had caused so many similar accidents that the doctors didn’t have the time or supplies to attend to Yiga. So, the boy was left on his own for the night, his leg torn to pieces, with only a light tensor wrap to stop the bleeding. The next day, the doctors informed Yiga that he needed a blood transfusion if he wanted to live, yet they were demanding money for the procedure. Yiga had no money to give, and his aunt who had come to see him had very little money as well. As this discussion was taking place, someone at the main hospital overheard the argument and informed Yiga about the work of O4A. This person instructed Yiga’s Aunt to bring the boy to the Jinja Orthopedic Clinic. When he was brought in our main surgeon very quickly realized that Yiga needed immediate attention and that same day, he was brought to the operating room and the front of his foot was amputated and the open flesh on his lower leg was stitched closed.
Yiga was bedridden at the clinic for days following the amputation, lonely and afraid. His aunt had since left him and his mother was nowhere to be found. After about three days, he began to speak up a little more. We asked Yiga where his mother was living and whether she had visited the clinic to take care of him. His answer was surprisingly “no.” He began to rightfully complain that he was hungry– his Aunt had rarely checked up on him or brought him any food to eat, and his mother didn’t seem to care. Realizing that there was literally no one attending to this boy, we bought him a loaf of bread and immediately contacted him mother and told her to come to the clinic. Yiga’s mother acted like she was unaware that her child had no food and told us that she would send someone to bring him something to eat. To this day, we have never met Yiga’s mother and another patient’s mom is preparing food for him.
As the days went on, Yiga seemed to be more talkative each time I came to check on him. I soon discovered his humorous side when he began asking me to take funny pictures of him holding a newspaper, or posing with a smirk and slight hand gesture to make himself look like a “tough guy” in the photos. Even as I would pass by his room he would shout “Musawo (nurse) Emma!” and then strike a ‘manly’ pose, hoping for me to pull out my camera to capture a picture his goofy posture.
The first time that I witnessed one of Yiga’s bandage change and wound dressing sessions I could hardly look at the gruesome wounds down his lower leg let alone come close enough to take a picture of his blood-soaked, amputation. At first, I watched from afar, squeamishly taking quick peeks at a scene that looked like should be the climax of a gory hospital movie. I handed the camera to one of our nurses, afraid to come closer. As I focused my attention on Toni (who had begun to take the pictures) I realized that the angle of his photo wasn’t going to give an accurate image of the severity of the situation…and I thought “I am the one who is supposed to be taking these pictures for Yiga’s medical files. That’s my job, that’s what I’m supposed to do. Here I am standing alone, letting my squeamishness get the best of me….yet this boy is the one who is in real pain….physically, emotionally, mentally….he is the one who is in pain. If he can go through this I can do my part as well” And that was that. I walked over to Toni, took the camera and began taking pictures of the wound, analyzing the details of the injury. The leg was cut badly just below the knee, the skin on the shin stripped entirely and stained red. The foot was mangled more than I could have imagined possible. Just over halfway to the arch, his foot suddenly stopped with the insides of the foot completely visible.
After about five minutes, I stepped back and walked outside into the fresh air, thinking, politics did that.
Yiga still remains in recovery at the Jinja Orthopedic clinic. Although his leg continues to heal, we are worried about his mental stability. Just the other day, he was sedated in order that the doctor could address to the stitches on his leg without him being able to feel the pain. After the procedure, I walked into the room where he was resting, and found him laying faced down with his palms covering his eyes, sobbing. It broke my heart to see him lying there, with no mother or father who cared about his well-being. Even though it may have been the after-effects of anesthetic medicines that caused him to actually break out in tears, it showed his true and hidden emotions that he tries to bottle up inside. It was strange to catch him crying like that…I’ve learned that Ugandan men NEVER cry. It is a shameful thing in the culture for men to share extreme emotions, especially sadness and pain. It is instilled even in young boys, that if they want to act like a man, they do not cry. What I saw was a 16 year old boy…a boy who had been living by himself, working long hours in order to pay his own rent, and trying to be courageous by advocating for a political leader in a street riot. What I saw was a young boy who was trying everything to be a man. But now, I saw him broken, on the outside and on the inside. I saw a moment in which he realized that he could no longer sustain a life of independence and it broke him into uncontrollable tears. I gave him space and didn’t say anything more to him that day.
To conclude, I would like to point out that both girls and boys are often pressured to act according to gender stereotypes that are not healthy. This is the sad truth of Yiga’s story and for many young boys in Uganda. There is a lot of pressure for boys to act like men before they are men. This is why our O4A staff not only focus on the medical needs of our children but form close relationships with our kids in order to be positive examples of care and compassion. My prayer for kids like Yiga is that as their physical wounds are healing, they can also experience healing emotionally during a time of great vulnerability…that they can be kids who grow and mature into healthy young adults who will then go on to be a positive influence in their communities.
Ugandan Advice: Do not wear your favourite baseball hat on a boda-boda, drivers don’t appreciate turning around to pick up fallen items.