Monday, 5 August 2013

My Favorite Journalist: Nicholas D. Kristof

The world, at home and abroad, is such an unmitigated mess that my heart surges every time I see his byline, especially during his annual award to an aspiring American journalist to accompany him abroad.(The lucky student this year is Erin Luhmann of the University of Wisconsin; their goal this year is Danja, Niger, West Africa, where “young women find healing and hope.” He describes how “they straggle in by foot, donkey cart or bus: humiliated women and girls with their heads downcast, feeling ashamed and cursed, trailing stink and urine.” (NYTimes, 7/14/13.)

Married off at 12 or 13, they become pregnant before their malnourished bodies are ready. They have suffered a devastating childbirth called an obstetric injury that has left them “incontinent, leaking urine and sometimes feces through their vaginas. Most have been sent away by their husbands, and many have endured years of mockery and ostracism as well as painful sores on their legs from the steady trickle of urine.”

They had heard of the daily medical miracles performed at the Danja Fistula Center in Niger, West Africa. Proudly Kristof speaks of an earlier report of his that moved hundreds of “Times” readers to donate more than $500,000 to the Worldwide Fistula Fund so that two idealistic doctors could open their hospital. This year the first patient they helped was Hadiza Soulaye. She had never been to school and didn’t know her own birthdate. Her family married her off at 11 or 12. It was before she began to menstruate. She was not consulted but became the second wife of her own uncle. Within a year she was pregnant. She had no prenatal care and a traditional birth attendant couldn’t help when she endured three days of obstructed labor. By the time she was taken to a hospital for a Caesarean delivery, her baby was dead and she had suffered internal injuries including a hole, or fistula, between her bladder and vagina. Hadiza didn’t know what happened. “I just knew I couldn’t control my pee, and I started crying.”

Everybody shunned her. Her husband threw her out of “his” house; other villagers regarded her so unclean that they wouldn’t let her fetch water or prepare food. Her dress was constantly wet with urine and everybody mocked her. She suffered several years of this abandonment. (She didn’t realize she had joined a despairing world crowd of two million fistula sufferers.)

When she heard of the DFC, Hadiza wondered if they could help her. Dr. Steve Arrowsmith, a urologist from Michigan who had helped plan the center—and healed more fistulas than any other Americans—operated on her and fixed the damage.He warned her not to have sex for six months so that the repair could heal. (This operation usually costs $500 to $1000.) She returned to her village thrilled to be healed.

Alas, her husband ordered her to his bed. He tore open the fistula. She began leaking again. Her husband threw her out of the house again, where she vowed never to return. The DFC is conducting research to see how best to repair these wome. If they halve the operating process they double the number of women they can repair. Dr. Arrowsmith and Dr. Lewis Wall an obstetric professor from Washington University in St. Louis are partners with Serving in Mission, an American Christian charity with long experience in Danja. But they want the Africans to be in charge so Dr. Arrowsmith is training Dr.Itengre’ Ouedraogo to takeover.

Kristof concludes in an upbeat: “This fistula center continues to exist on a shoestring, struggling for operating funds. But the exuberance of the patients is contagious, and I wanted readers to know that your generosity has built a city of joy. (That’s right! Reach for your checkbook. 500 grand doesn’t last that long !) These women may arrive miserable and shamed, but they leave proud, heads held high. And in a complicated world of trouble, that’s a reason to celebrate.” 
Heh, maybe you’ll be the lucky companion next year. Write him at the “Times” for his rules! 

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review

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