A Test of Faith

Cousin Piers on working with the sick, dying and destitute in Ethiopia

My cousin Piers spent two-and-a-half months working at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Sick, Dying and Destitute in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. He’s written a 25,000 word journal of his time there, and has kindly sent me the following edited version for the Ay-Up Family Newsletter I was planning to put together.

About 10 years ago I had the greatest privilege of being asked to join the Knights of Malta. I had been asked 10 years earlier, but had not been able to see what I could contribute to the Order to make it worth me joining. I had always felt that, if I was to join an organization, I would do so only if I could make a meaningful and useful contribution – and live up to every member’s promise to serve our lords, the sick.

For the last 15 years or so, I have taken myself off for six weeks somewhere in the world to work among those less fortunate then me. I have felt it my Catholic duty to give something back and to thank God for the enormously privileged life I have; to make sure I take nothing for granted; and to keep my feet firmly on the ground. So it was that I found myself working for two-and-a-half months at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Sick, Dying and Destitute in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.
Over the years I have been very frustrated by the obstacles that face anyone with a strong back and two willing arms who wants to give their time, energy and passion to serve the poorest of the poor. NGOs, for example, typically want you to commit yourself for a minimum of six months; to be multi-lingual; to be a pilot or have an HGV licence; to have at least three years’ medical training; and – on top of all this – to contribute £200-300 a week to the charity for which you have volunteered. Well, this year for the first time I have found a charity that does not require any of this: Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity (who run 754 homes in 154 countries) will take you for either a day or a year (or anything in between), whatever your age, with or without formal qualifications – and more often than not will provide you with accommodation.  This is a brief journal of my time in Ethiopia

I arrived at the gates of Mother Teresa’s home in Addis Ababa on a warm December morning, two days before Christmas 2010. I was met at the gate by Sister Martha John, a Polish nun with whom I had had a two-minute telephone conversation three weeks earlier – at the end of which she had invited me to come as a volunteer for as long as I wanted.

I was given a quick tour of the Mission (home to about 1000 residents) and then was straight off to work. Three minutes later I was standing over the body of a man who had just died. We said prayers for him. Then two of us hand-stitched him into a cotton sheet, after which he was taken away to a much happier place he was in ten minutes earlier. Then it was off to the dressings ward, which was to become my daytime home for the next 10 weeks. Bedsores are something of a personal bete noir: I had dressed bedsores for seven weeks in an AIDS hospice in South Africa five years before – but they had not become any easier to deal with.

In the developed world, bedsores are easily treated. But for an Ethiopian with no body fat they can be life-threatening. If you lie in bed 24 hours a day without being turned over, your bones wear a hole in your skin; and the skin then becomes necrotic. This produces one of the worst smells imaginable – retch-inducing in the extreme. My job each day was to cut away patients’ dead flesh with a scalpel (no anaesthetic), clean the wound and then redress them all.

We had Mass every morning at 6.30am; and we gathered at 6pm every evening for an hour-and-a-half of Adoration prayers in the chapel – the volunteers and the 14 sisters who run this Mission. After a week at the Mission I could not decide whether God had forgotten this place or whether He was omnipresent. On one hand, through the medium of the sisters, He permeates every timber, mat, pathway, bed and concrete block. You cannot imagine the love and devotion that the nuns show to all the patients. I felt truly privileged to be working in this environment, surrounded by such love and selflessness. On the other hand, was this the place that God had forgotten?

Looking around, you could not help but wonder how God could permit such suffering. In my first week, I saw more faeces, diarrhea, urine, protruding bones and projectile vomiting than I could imagine. I prayed to God to help me overcome my fears and to keep my spiritual and physical strength up so I could overcome my (many) doubts.
I was feeling truly confused about my faith and finding it very hard to get answers – but I was hoping to get some in Addis Ababa.

I spent the afternoons playing with the Mission’s mentally disabled children. It was divine. All these children wanted was to be hugged, loved and played with – all of which I was more than happy to do. But it also made me incredibly sad that I did not have children of my own. What a fool I have been. At 4pm every day it was feeding time for the children. I quickly discovered that, when faced with a child with a mouth full of food, the trick was to anticipate when they were going to cough. You have to scan the children’s faces for little signals. Just half-a-second late gets you a glutinous ball of homemade porridge – in the face if you are lucky, in your mouth if you are less lucky. I was caught out a couple of times by these little missiles of masticated food as they hit the back of my throat at lightning speed. But after two hours spent refining my strategy, I felt confident of giving a mongoose a run for its money! It was the most wonderful fun; and my jaw ached from laughing and smiling all day.

One morning I walked from my quarters to the ward and this is what I came across: a woman with two noses; a man with a goitre on his neck the size of three tennis balls; multiple lunatics talking either to themselves or to walls, windows, trees or plants; and a dead body on a stretcher. The really frightening thing was that none of this made me look twice. How quickly one adapts to one’s environment.

Trying to condense a 25,000-word chronicle of the most wonderful 10 weeks of my life into this small space is nearly impossible. The Ethiopian workers were among the most dedicated people I have ever met; and the bravery shown by the patients was deeply humbling. I found people who were kind, funny and honest – and who most of all wanted to share everything they had with me. I felt deeply fortunate and privileged to have been able to spend so much time among an extraordinary group of people.

73 people died during my 10 weeks at the Mission. May they rest in peace. They included people I had got to know well – people I had treated every day. In some cases, I had been the last person to hold their hand as they slipped away to join God at his side.

Cousin Piers left the UK on 31st October for a “mid life change” and one year “self indulgent trip around the world”. You can read all about it here.

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