In a year largely consumed by thinking about and reacting to the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps it’s a nice break that there should be something earth-shattering enough to distract us from its ubiquitous presence in our lives. But not really.
In July, the solar water pump that supplies the clinic staff housing was liberated from its drudgery during the night. Nothing was ever discovered about its new life or location, it was replaced, and life moved on. In mid-October, twice in three nights, the clinic suffered attempted burglaries, once with thieves coming for the backup generator, and again, someone attempting to take the water pump at the staff quarters. The mission and the staff were of one mind that the clinic needed to show the community the seriousness of our concerns by immediately shutting down operations. In the words of our chaplain, “We need to teach these thieves to reduce their speed; their speed is abnormal.” We have remained closed up to now as we continue to try and sort out a solution to the ongoing problem of theft that beleaguers us.
Part of the problem is that the mission, for at least the eight years that we have been on the field, has dealt with theft with kid gloves. There have been numerous incidents during that time, but only the mission has ever suffered for it. No one has ever been arrested, thrown in the slammer, made to pay restitution, or ostracised from the community. We continue to hire suspected and known thieves to do work for the mission, and no service that the mission offers has ever been suspended because of these thefts—until now. Indeed, this is one of the major complaints of the clinic staff—that the mission never follows up on theft, which leads would-be thieves to become ever more bold in their efforts. We, the mission, have never had the stomach for pursuing justice to its end. It takes time and money and a willingness to be out of the community’s good graces for awhile. Because of this, we have justly earned the reputation here as harmless chickens, literally. You take the chicken’s egg today and tomorrow there is another. The chicken does not protest or manifestly suffer, and the one eating the eggs benefits substantially. The other side of the coin, of course, is that we are saddled with local leaders who have been perfectly content to harbour criminals and tacitly encourage them to act by their indifference toward seeking justice, or their outright hostility toward the mission’s efforts. At one community meeting concerning the mission’s decision to terminate several watchmen who were thought to be involved in a burglary, one of the elders stood up and said, “You have to pay these men severance, because when you do, they are going to give some of it to us.” That’s the message from the leadership: if we can force the mission to capitulate, we benefit financially. A community member, fearing reprisal from his neighbour who is an unrestrained criminal, also keeps quiet. The police have no incentive to get involved beyond the perfunctory report filed, and so the process never goes anywhere. In other words, justice will not be served; it has to be prised out from the deception and indifference which pervades our community, and in closing the clinic, we hope to have found a sufficiently large lever.
What has changed this time, apart from an accumulation of grievance in the mission, is that, since these acts have been directed against the clinic, the safety of our staff members has become a significant issue. The pervading wisdom around here is that if you catch a thief in the act, you’ve pretty much consigned yourself to kill or be killed. No thief, so local understanding would have it, will accept themselves to be identified without reprisal. So, if one of our nurses is walking to the clinic at night to attend to a patient, and she happens to cross paths with a criminal, her life is at immediate risk, which is obviously not an acceptable outcome. In recent meetings regarding the thefts, I have hammered this point to those in attendance. Our medical workers have come out at night, in the rain, through the mud, and on Christmas day to care for the sick in this community, but I will not ask them to put their lives on the line against a would-be thief in a community happy to shelter such. The community leaders’ first recourse is always to call for more guards. If we can walk people back and forth with their own security detail, then the problem will be solved. Of course, as I have explained, if you have malaria and take nothing but Tylenol, your fever goes away, but you don’t get well. Hiring more guards treats the symptoms, but the only real solution is to eradicate the parasites from the neighbourhood, which for now means swallowing some pretty heavy medicine. As many are fond of saying, “one frog spoils the whole water.” There is no viable solution apart from removing the frog.
The first meeting was three weeks ago. The village chairmen told us they would get to the bottom of it. Nothing happened and a week went by. Then, the parish chief called a community meeting at which information trickled out. I communicated that if the lead discovered in the meeting would be investigated by the chairmen and the police, the committee that oversees the clinic would meet to discuss a plan to reopen. When the parish chief tried to gather the chairmen to investigate, they scattered to the hills, and another week went by. Still trying to find a way forward, I started working my way up the bureaucratic ladder, and sent a letter to the subcounty chief, warning him that we would begin dismissing our technical staff to go back to their villages if the matter was not resolved. He summoned the village chairmen to ask why they had not sorted things out, and they promised to meet today, but there has been no sign of them. We have begun circulating the message in the community that it is not the mission that is preventing the clinic from opening, but the village leaders. Either they are indifferent to the suffering of their people, or they know the identities of the culprits and are protecting them; nothing else explains their lassitude. Until now, that staff have reported to work every day, ready to open at a moment’s notice, but now the process of restarting will be measured in weeks.
The complaints are many and loud from the community. Sick people, hoping to wait the standoff out, are now becoming seriously ill. Patients from Nakaale who want to be seen at the nearby hospital are harassed by the staff there for their stubborn refusal to out the culprits. The drug shop in our nearby trading centre is doing such a brisk business that they are running short of supplies, and a malaria treatment that would have cost not more than 4000 shillings at our clinic is going for 35000. Still everyone is keeping quiet. In the public meeting held several weeks back, several of the clinic staff made the appeal that the mission clinic belongs (in a way) to the community. They need to begin taking responsibility for its welfare. If the generator is stolen, there may not be power for the lights or the microscopes. If the pump is stolen, the staff may not be able to bathe and come to work on time. It is an oft’ quoted truism here that when people start stealing from you, it means your presence is no longer desired. I made this appeal at the meeting as well. If the community no longer wants the clinic around, let them say so. But if they do, there needs to be a sea change in the way we interact. They need to demonstrate their amity, and we have clearly set the terms of that proof.