Posted by Bryce
The rocks make the path look more like a riverbed than a road. The ambulance and its five passengers clunk along at 5 miles per hour. We occasionally smash our heads on the roof and windows. Seated in the front is Fatuma, a Home Based Care giver; next to her is Rupert, a volunteer from England here at Pepo La Tumaini Jangwani (Pepo) for the second time; in the back snuggled amongst our cargo are Peter and Raphael, two Orphans living at the Pepo Transitional Living Camp; and myself, just another volunteer today, but in my head a photojournalist without a camera!
The boys and I joke, as we clunk along to the directions from Fatuma. She is from the area we are headed. It is a small section of Isiolo town, where a number of people suffering from HIV/AIDS are interspersed throughout the community. Fatuma is one of 79 Home Based Care givers aiding Pepo to provide food and care to those incapable of helping themselves. In the month of September alone, the volunteer based organization was able to provide such care to 794 individuals. Today is just a fraction of that. It’s also an example of the context this care takes place in.
Already drawing a large crowd, we stop in front of a dilapidated wooden fence and exit the back of the vehicle. I hop out and the boys start to hand me the small bags of supplies we’ve prepared. Rice, wheat, flour, cooking oil, sugar and a few others are all tied neatly into clear plastic bags. There is no mistaking we’re delivering a fair amount of quality food. In the eyes of onlookers, it is food that’s going to someone who would or should have been died already. We’re getting as many glares as curious and excited glances.
This communal divide, acceptance of Pepo’s mission and anger over their use of resources has been with the organization from the beginning. Whether with angry religious groups in the past or local law enforcement in present. Not a week prior, a police officer was voicing this to Pepo’s Director, Khadija O. Rama in front of a 14 year old boy with Aids. “Why do you help them? They have Aids and deserve to be dead already,“ he criticized, speaking loudly enough for everyone around to hear.
Looking into the crowd now, I get the feeling that the same sentiment is running through some onlookers. Fatuma’s curt actions and lack of eye contact seem to confirm this. We carry the parcels of food to a wooden gate. Before we enter, a woman dressed in a torn black shirt approaches us and angrily asks, “Na meme?” Meaning, “and me?” Fatuma ignores her and I follow suit. Inside are two rectangular homes and lying between is a small shack. We’re greeted by a woman in her 20’s. She chats with Fatuma in kiswahili. Then, like the clumsy American I must look, I drop a bag from my tower of food. It explodes on the ground showering the dirt with dry beans. I give Fatuma a shameful look and let out, “ pole sana.” “Very sorry,” a phrase I’ve learned well. She gives me an indecipherable look and disappears into the shack. I sheepishly help the young lady blow the dirt off the beans and land then in another bag.
The inside of the shack is dark and cluttered. A bed lies on the side on which an elderly lady props herself. She’s thin, ill, and anywhere from 85 to 300 years old near as I can tell. We greet with a handshake and talk as Fatuma translates. She explains her name is Khadija as well and doesn’t know her age. She’s been in Isiolo for more than 40 years and calls it home. We’re not sure where she has come from. It’s a short conversation. Khadija takes a breath and gives us a tired smile. Fatuma gives me a glance and it’s time to go. We exchange goodbyes.
Back at the ambulance the crowd still lingers. The boys open the back and I climb in. Laughing, Peter says something in kiswahili while pointing outside. Raphael translates, “You want ride on the outside of the car? Hold on the back?” I give them a smirk and egg them on. “You want me to?” I get up and make to open the back door. In unison they jump up and shout in a half laugh, “No! No! Don’t!” They realize I’m joking as well and laugh. “Don’t do that!” Raphael tells me, “ You’ll get stoned!” I raise my eyebrow and they giggle. The vehicle jerks forward and clunks along. Raphael stares out his open window, then closes it tight.
We make several more stops, including one to an exuberant woman in a wheelchair living in a complex of about 40 Borana men seeming to be getting ready for mosque. Eventually we run out of food and return to the Pepo compound for more. A number of the transitional living children and home bases care givers are organizing and packing food in a concrete sitting area. They laugh hurriedly as O. Rama teases them with orders to hurry because people are hungry. It’s during this time that I realize the emotional contrasts. At any given location we can be a welcomed sight or a hated presence. One moment, I’m being told off by a girl of around 15: the next Nasir Mohammed, the program coordinator and Christopher, a Danish volunteer speed by. Their motorcycle chugging under the weight of its food parcels. They wave, then zip around a corner, which immediately erupts with a herd of panicked goats. Five minutes later, I’m meeting another grateful recipient. It’s all a bit of a blur.
But it’s easy to understand why a food distribution can cause such varied welcomes. In Isiolo those living below the poverty line vastly over shadow the 10 percent Aids prevalence rate. So deciding who receives aid is a complicated matter. Each individual receiving home based care must go through a rigorous application so someone else can decide whether Pepo is able to support them. Indeed, it’s not as if Pepo has this food regularly. This distribution only came when an organization operating under USAID, delivered the food supplies. Without meeting the informational requirements Pepo wouldn’t be able to help the individuals at all. So the question of who gets support is always so simple to ask, but difficult to answer. In a poverty stricken area like Isiolo, it’s hard to discern those with wealth and those who have only the will to obtain the resources to help. Of the 794 home based care recipients, this day’s shipment will reach less than 40 individuals. It’s a figure that is sometimes hard for the community to see. Pepo isn’t saving the day, it’s just helping to get through it.
Dealing with this situation is a regular routine. It is just more pronounced when Pepo has to make such a large appearance. But in the end, we exhaust the supplies without much incident. Our day now over, the ride slowly ends. Peter and Raphael stick their heads out the windows to shout and wave at some schoolmates passing the vehicle. I’m tired and wary of the fact that we have violated the Ambulance donor’s usage agreement. It is to be used to help children and the sick to the hospital, not help them in general. We stop in the middle of a deserted road and Fatuma hops out. We open the back door and hand her the last of the remaining bags. Wheat, flour, beans, rice, sugar, cooking oil, salt, and a small box of tea bags are her incentive for the past month of home based care work. “My home is near” she informs. She gives another indistinguishable look, then lets out a sly and knowing smile. I realize all my revelations today are just old news to her. Fatuma heads off and so do we.