By Carolyn Belshe
I think the time has come for me to share my malaria story: I was commissioned as a United Methodist General Board of Global Missions missionary in 1988, studied Portuguese in Lisbon, and entered Mozambique 1989 as administrator of Chicuque Rural Hospital. My assignment was to train a Mozambican to manage the hospital and health care system of the Igreja Unida em Mozambique – to work my way out of a job.
The land of loving people, growing church families, and Mother Nature’s blessings was the stage to learn about our 168-bed inpatient hospital, health posts, Leprosy program, Tuberculosis program, underweight baby program, and later the SIDA (HIV/AIDS) program. Then later, we began receiving help for malaria.
During the initial months I learned more about Mozambique being number one on the International Suffering Index (the US was #98). Twenty-seven years of war – revolutionary then civil – had sapped life from 18 million people, and 3 percent of that population was Methodist. I learned that our admission diagnoses ran like this: 1) Malnutrition; 2) Malaria; 3) Tuberculosis; 4) War-wounded; 5) OB-GYN-related; 6) then came not-so-routine diagnoses such as vehicle accident, or blood pressure or cancer.
Until one hears the cry of a mother whose child just died from malaria, malnutrition, and/or their combination, the human ear has heard nothing – not until that whaling cry of a mother holding another child that breathed her last breath – you haven’t heard nothing.
Chicuque Hospital grounds held 19 buildings during those years. Pediatrics was located in the farthermost corner, up the hill. Administration and patient intake was the center building at the front, near the road. That mother’s cry rings in my ears, in my heart and soul – now 20 years later. A cry like no other cry.
We knew immediately after I heard it the first time, that everything stopped momentarily, in respect of that mother and the holiness of a child leaving an earthly body to enter heaven’s angel choir. Flashing before our minds would be the months she had carried that life in her body; kilometers upon kilometers she would pull herself along to make it to delivery in the hospital. A delivery that well could involve surgery for complications that had arisen in such times of poverty, times of poor nourishment and times of fighting malaria. Then, there were joys! The Women’s Society would have a cap and booties available to hold the baby’s temperature in his body as he gained gram by gram, and life took on a personality. Only to be snuffed out in months and/or years to come. Malaria would snatch the body up in high fevers, anemia, and parasitic involvement.
We had an old, beat up pickup with no brakes, no starter but we parked it on the slope to roll and start. Staff in pediatrics would place the mother’s grass mat in the back end; two would lift her fragile and broken body to the bed where one would help her lay down on her mourning mat. We would drive slowly, carrying her home to her own small hut of grief. Mysteriously, her neighbors would know by the sound of the hospital truck, or by a runner, or by God’s many messengers – for they would quickly sweep the yard with a coconut branch and tidy up a place to lay down a mat in that shaded privacy to receive this grieving mother.
Time and time again, I experienced this gruelling life/death process with mothers in that community. I too, was a mother. I too, had lost two babies in pregnancy, and birthed two and watched them grow into adulthood. I had even been blessed with two phone calls across the states, as grandchildren had entered the world. In fact, they had seen grandy off at the airport months earlier...me so proud of them, and they so ready to return to their school rooms and tell about grandy and Africa.
They did not know of malaria. They lived in a developed country. They were white. They had a mama and a daddy and both had good jobs. They had choices of cereals and juices for breakfast. They rode trikes and bikes and played football and soccer. Their mom took them for routine vaccination program shots and tests and stopped by the pharmacy where their mom or dad purchased antibiotics when infections entered their bodies. Chewable vitamins were always part of their daily routine, along with toothbrushes and flavored toothpastes of their choice.
Then, one day, I felt like I was taking the flu. No, flu ... not in Africa, but what is it? Achy and feverish, the chills started; every orifice of my body seemingly emitted something. Head ache like I had never known. Malaria carrying mosquitoes found they like white woman blood.
Not just once, but two, three, four, five times, in my life in Mozambique, I lay at death’s door with malaria. Each time, I would gain enough rebound to be hauled away to the airport and flown back to the States for recovery. Two to four months, I would be cared for by the best of support teams, church families, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and friends and family.
Of those five times, twice I was diagnosed with Cerebral Malaria. The last time an ICU was set up in my bedroom...an Intensive Care Unit...as best as the nurse colleague could establish. Our Executive Secretary from the New York office showed up. Four days he sat on the front porch and I lay on a grass mat and we grieved me through releasing my time in Mozambique into the hands of God where I learned Faith I had never known in my 50 some years.
Malaria had beat me at the game of life in Mozambique, the land of a signed Peace Accord; a land of cashews and coconuts and mandeoka; of singing and dancing down the church isles to give their annual thanksgiving gift to their family church, their mother church that had brought peace to their hearts, faith to keep going, joy of food for their tables, and schools for their children.
Half a dozen church brothers and sisters lined up in my sick room to be with me in those agonizing hours of fevers and sickness. The nurse moved them out of the room, so they gathered under the window’s ledge where a coconut tree had blown over into a horizontal position – just right for a front yard settee. By the hours and hours, they sat and prayed. Once stable enough to realize that I was alive and where I was, helpers stood me up so I could see my sisters and brothers sitting outside in solidarity with a white missionary who loved them – and they were most seriously empathizing with my struggle to live.
The supervisor from the mission office in New York showed up to bring me to specialty care in Atlanta at the medical school where Tropical Diseases are studied, where the world’s best medical staff know about Cerebral Malaria and what could be done to stop the cycles that were sapping life from me. While lab work, doctors, and staff were studying those “why’s”, a psychiatrist was assigned my case to answer my question: “Why was I brought out of a malaria zone and given a new lease on life because I am American, because I am a woman, because I am white, because I am a missionary?”
Twenty years plus, have passed. I continue asking that question. Why? Today, I ask my United Methodist Church family, “Why?” Yes, God is with me through these times when the weight of “why” hangs so heavy on my shoulders and in my heart. Can the church in general not see the needed passion for John Wesley’s “The world is my parish.” I despise racism, inequality, and sexism, post-colonialism. I despise them passionately. Malaria creates opportunities for us as Christ-followers to overcome such sinful living that is rooted in capitalism, asset-gathering, and benefits of wealth – no matter how our comfort zones blind us to our neighbors needs for protection – equal protection – no matter the racial factors, sex factors, asset factors. We are all God’s family.
Sure, I would return in a heart-beat to the land of Malaria, the land of poverty, the land of hot and sweltering worship services and walk the walk with those who understand Nature, who understand Creation and whose Faith is lived 24/7, who has love for us in developing worlds because they have pity on us and where such extravagances are wasted which erode Mother Nature’s normalcy. They know from whence comes their strength. Their prayers move their feet into motion and blessings come. Do they love the western church for the money gifts? They love the western church because they come looking for what their African church has that is not obvious anywhere else...yes, African church has malaria and malaria teaches! Does anyone want to increase malaria? Of course not. Does malaria show us how strong Nature is? Yes. Who is Nature? God.
What is God, our Creator teaching us? Let’s look back to the solidarity, the love, concern and compassion our brothers and sisters showed when they stopped their daily living survival to come and sit on the coconut settee-like tree trunk and empathized with my suffering. I could peek out the window and see them waiting and praying and singing on behalf of someone who loved them enough to live, to want to live, through the throes of cerebral malaria. Summarizing, we in our crusade of “NO Malaria” are doing a good thing. Yes, eradicating malaria is a good thing. Joining fellowship, friendship, dancing, singing – moving through today’s journey with our African brothers and sisters in the rhythm of Jesus-living is the key! Not the ending of malaria. did you get it? Together we worship. Together we are in the Presence of our one Creator. Amen. Thank you.
Since her return to the U.S., Carolyn Belshe has been a student at Saint Paul School of Theology. She is currently residing in Marionville, MO.
For more information on Imagine No Malaria, go to www.imaginenomalariamo.org.