Friday, January 13, 2012

Don’t forget the “other” 99 percent

Every day we hear about the Occupy protests, and the 99 percent. People march in the streets, holding signs about health care and jobs and lost homes. I don’t want to minimize the hardship that people in this country experience, but after participating in health care in Chad, I realized that in some people’s eyes, many of us more closely resemble the one percent.

I volunteered in an African hospital for a month, and when I returned, friends asked, “How was your trip?” When I tried to answer, I was always flooded with emotion. The thing I learned is this: Not many people live the way we do. That’s why it’s so hard for us to understand how others live.

Having been to a number of low resource countries, I have seen poverty, but Chad is one of the poorest of the poor. I’m not referring to poverty in small pockets in the city, or in rural communities. It’s infectious, and immense.

I lived with a family in a small village, and they were considered rich because they had a door and a metal roof over their hut. The toilet was a hole in the ground, and taking a “shower” meant fetching a bucket of water from the well and bathing while squatting on bricks.

From day one I was on the front lines of the “emergency department,” in a hospital that contained only one sink. Even though I’m only a student nurse, I was given serious responsibilities because the staffing was so inadequate. I served as scrub nurse for the head surgeon, who had been the janitor for 26 years before 'working his way up'.  I helped with a foot amputation, mastectomy, cesarean section and other surgeries. I even delivered some babies!

I fell asleep nightly to the sound of drums and people talking and chanting to rhythms and language I had never heard before. The Sub-Saharan desert is a vast place that made me feel so small. Death surrounds the people of Chad and it is apparent in the lack of water and food, and the prevalence of disease. Malaria takes the lives of so many family members and friends, and surviving is on everyone’s mind. I met a boy who was 15 and whose name meant “next to die.” His three older brothers had all died by the age of two.

Gaining global awareness is a journey that never stops. My month in Chad was filled with deep sadness and joy, along with new understanding gained by asking people about themselves, and listening. I’ve spent a lot of time in developing nations, and I was surprised that I still have room to gain new perspectives about the developing world. But when I was able to have face-to-face encounters with people who told me about their families, lives and dreams, I was struck by a growing sense that we are truly citizens of the world. When my friends hear about my trip and say, “Wow, I could never do that,” I think, “How can we not?”

Jessica Milnes is finishing her Nursing degree in Portland, Oregon. She has led adventure travel expeditions and served as a volunteer in North and South America, Africa and Europe. She can be reached by
phtography website:

No comments: