Yesterday, Friday, was a long, crazy day.
It ended with one of the most chilling experiences of my life.
In the morning I awoke early and trekked through the darkness down to the safe-home, the light from my headlamp leading the way. With Ntseliseng still at the hospital, the bo’me were still a bit short-staffed, and with a bunch of babies sick, there was a lot of comforting and bottle feeding to be done.
I took turns holding two-month old Mamello and the five-month-old twins Bohlokoa and Bohloeki. It is amazing to hold them consecutively, as it really gives you a sense of just how small the twins are. Mamello is bigger than them, despite being less than half their age.
Still, the twins look good. Bohloeki is a great eater and chowed down on the bottle I fed her. Bohlokoa makes strange, hugely expressive faces and is very cute.
I also held Nthati, who has been battling her strange respiratory illness and rash for two weeks now. She finally seems to be pulling out of it, and it was so great to be able to get smiles out of her this morning. I played a simplified version of peek-a-boo with her as I held her in my arms, and her cute little laugh filled the room.
After the morning rush, I hit the road with Dr. Amy Hutton, on our way to Maseru so Dr. Amy could catch her flight home. She was great here and really helped with the sick babies.
She and I handled a couple of errands in the city, and after dropping her off at the Moshoeshoe Airport, I turned around and headed back to Mokhotlong. We had left at about 8:30 a.m., and I arrived back home a little after 8 p.m.
When I got home, I ate a quick dinner the great volunteers here Emma, Quinn and Claire, had prepared, as they told me about their day and the new baby in the safe-home, who had just arrived a few hours before.
“He’s smaller than any baby I have ever seen,” Quinn said.
Born premature on May 20, tiny, tiny, tiny Liteboho was only about 3 pounds. His mother wasn’t producing breast milk, so Liteboho had essentially been surviving on water until the Malefiloane clinic referred him to TTL.
The last note in his Bukana reads, “Plan: Refer to TTL for formula, feeding and any assistance.”
Just minutes after hearing about him being in the safe-home, I was in the kitchen when Bokang, our security guard, appeared in the doorway.
“Ntate Kevin,” he said. “The bo’me have a problem.”
“With one of the babies?” I asked.
“Yes,” Bokang said. “They are saying he is dead.”
I ran down to the safe-home to find the bo’me sitting around the bedroom, with all the babies sleeping around them, talking in quiet, frustrated tones.
“Where is he?” I asked.
One of the bo’me pointed to a large pillow on the ground that seemed to have an empty white blanket on top of it. It was only after I took a second look that I realized Liteboho was there, under the blanket – the size of a small doll, silent, not breathing, dead.
M’e Nthabeleng arrived a few minutes later. We took a towel, and wrapped little Liteboho’s body up. Then I lifted him off the ground, and cradled him in my arms. He was still warm. I can’t describe the feeling other than saying it was an eerie, deep, sadness, one made more confusing for the fact that I had never met the boy in my arms.
Nthabeleng drove us over to the hospital, where a security guard met us at the mortuary.
The room was simple, filled with freezers that held the bodies of Mokhotlong’s recently deceased. It was cold in the room, and there were a few concrete slabs used for washing bodies.
The names of the deceased were written on pieces of paper, taped to the doors of the freezer compartment. I scanned the many doors and didn’t see an unoccupied one. I also noticed that about a dozen of the 30 or so compartments had a single phrase written on them: “Se kenye mofu ka mona.”
I asked Nthabeleng what it meant, and she said the rough translation was, “Don’t put a body in here.”
All of the compartments marked with that phrase were broken, and my initial thought that there were no empty, working compartments available proved correct. M’e Nthabeleng spoke rapidly with the guard, who then opened one of the compartments. A man’s body, wrapped in a sheet, with his head closest to us, lay there. I stared.
“Put him on the chest,” Nthabeleng said.
“What?” I said.
“There’s no where else. On his chest.”
Slowly, I reached into the freezer compartment, my face moving closer and closer to the sheet-covered face, and placed little Liteboho on the man’s chest. As I stepped back, Nthabeleng moved forward and turned Liteboho’s body around, into the position in which a baby might sleep on his father’s chest.
“There,” she said. “That’s better.”
Last night, I tossed in bed a long time, thinking about the two bodies in the freezer. I wondered who the man was, whether he had children of his own. I wondered at the ridiculousness of the situation, the horrible lack of resources that causes an overwhelmed mortuary, and the intimacy of placing a deceased baby softly on the chest of a deceased man – two Basotho laying together, taken too early from this world. I thought about Liteboho’s warm, lifeless body in my arms.
The phrase “Se kenye mofu ka mona” repeated itself in my head.
A Friday night out on the town in Mokhotlong. This is a strange world.
Even though we only had Liteboho in the safe home for a few short hours, his death still feels like a loss, of which there have been too many lately.
But it also strengthens my resolve once more. It re-enforces the reality that there are countless babies who are in desperate need of TTL’s help and resources.
After stewing in bed last night for a long time, it was that resolve that finally let me drift off to sleep.
The TTLF Fellow is a representative of the North American organisation The Tiny Lives Foundation. Based for one year in Mokhotlong, Lesotho, the TTLF Fellow serves in an administrative support capacity for the Basotho charity TTL.