Why Not to Pull the Tail on the Donkey

Oh a country so sad and so frustrating and so heroic.

One night I was sitting in my plastic lawn chair in front of my house reading. Shindouk was off collecting clients in Bamako and Hapsa, his niece (second cousin, or is it first cousin once removed?) who stays with us was off at her end of the year party at school. I was alone, a rather singular experience in itself, and looking for something new to read I rummaged in my things and pulled out a photocopy of Thomas Shadwell’s 1673 drama
Epsom Wells. I was just settling into the intrigues and smutt of the seventeenth century ladies and gentlemen of Bath when a young girl showed up asking for Hapsa.

It was the “sister” a little abandoned boy whom we has sort of adopted. Her family had taken him in and was raising him as best they could, I suppose, with their limited means. When Shindouk took especial interest of and pity on him. Named him honorary guardian of our house and as payment for services he receives three meals a day and new cloths on the fetes. Poor shy little boy with a big head and broad shoulders (for a three year old) narrowing to an almost non-existent bum and scrawny legs he always looks a bit odd strutting around head up shoulders thrust back like a football player with his shoulder pads on. With regular meals and people who play with him, tease him, tickle him, and give him tasks that make him feel useful he has transformed into a regular little boy. goofy, giggly, irascible...

His sister tells me that he has been kicked by a donkey. Where is he? At the house, he’s sleeping. What is the trouble? the donkey kicked him in the face he’s wounded. I think about it, if he is sleeping should I go wake him or let him get what rest he can, I ask again He’s sleeping? No not really. Okay well, I go inside set my play on the table and rummage thought the random collection of medical supplies that tourists leave us when they depart, I pull out some cotton, some gauze pads, and tape, some antiseptic and as an afterthought a couple of Ibuprofen, he’s got to be in pain.

With my cell phone that doubles as a torch, I go out and lock up. She leads me across the sandy ground to the farthest hut north, not theirs, and as we approach the entryway to the fenced in yard she calls out a greeting. We don’t enter, there was a shadow on the ground near us. The lady in the tent comes out with a flashlight and I see the shadow is Abdalla, on the ground in front of the entry (what is his penchant for always sitting smack in the go-though?) his head pillowed on a waded up blanket. His face when I get a good look at is is caked with a dark, grainy, greenish paste that has dried to a crust. Hmmm. I wonder for a moment if it is made of donkey manure, sort of cure-resembing-the-cause. I know they are fans of camel poo for a lot of things, mashed up with a little water for a toothache (yes put in the mouth on the tooth, hot on the jaw) burn it and let the fumes enter the eyes for a person with pink eye...

But I recall that another popular cure for a variety of aches, pains and sores is henna, the ground up leaves of a plant with lovely smelling flowers, the leaves also have a smell but it isn’t so nice. I ask if it is henna, yes. Better than manure but I am still faced with the tasked of cleaning it all off. Why couldn’t they have called me first. Right over the wound was a solid wad that I pried of with one try a nasty gash was revealed about an inch long in the crease that you get when you smile. Abdalla was not smiling. He was awake, sort of. I am not sure if it was sleep or pain that put him in a half doze, it still allowed him to whimper under my ministrations.

I asked for some water and they brought me a little tin of it I diped some of the cotton in and set about cleaning off the henna and congeled blood that had run down under his nose and his chin. It had all dried and was not easy to get off without causing pain. The henna high on his cheek was harder still being a thinner application. There must have been some serious bruising because he fretted more and even tried to push my hand away. I finally cleared an area around the wound and decided to leave the rest for morning when I could see well and would soak it off with a washcloth. But there were still little crumbs of stuff in the wound and the wound itself was rather deep an 8th or an inch anyway.

I recalled having some butter fly bandages and a pair of pointy tweezers in my med kit. I excused myself and went back to the house. I found the tweezers but not the bandages so I improvised I took one of those clear bandage things the breathable tape stuff and cut it into a couple of butterflies.

Back to Abdallha I cleaned as best I could the wound got out the little grains of henna and dirt the donkey had ground in, here’s hoping he has his tetanus shots. The henna from his face kept falling in the wound it was most frustrating. I finally got it as clean as I could, dried off the surrounding area tried to pull it closed with the butterflies not an easy task with his mouth in the way of where they should go. I covered the whole works with a wad of gaze and tape and made him swallow an ibuprophen gave the other one to the moma and told her to give it to him in the morning. I asked if he was up to eating dinner and when he said yes told his sister to come and I would give her his plate, he got up himself to follow me home. Resilient.

The morning was Friday, I handed out cookie/crackers to all the children of the neighbourhood and Abdalla showed up for his share. Poor bugger couldn’t eat them though, too crunchy I guess. I had him wait till I was done (don’t want to get bodily fluids on the treats, or mobbed by impatient kiddies), took off the gauze and had a look it was a nasty cut and his face a nasty mess. I cleaned off the face down to the scrapes and re-bandaged the wound. made him a small cup of milk broke his biscuits into it so they’d get soft. And the rest of the day I saw him playing and running and trying to do handstands and I marvelled.

I had discovered the cause of the assult: the donkey kicked him because he had been jerking it’s tail. Keep that in mind next time you want to pull a donkey’s tail! Two days after his wound, Hapsa called me. Abdalla had puked up his breakfast. I came to see him he didn’t have a fever and the wound didn’t seem hot but I took the bandage off and gently washed the wound with antiseptic soap and left it open to dry, it was already starting to close and I didn’t want it to get putrid in the heat. I asked some questions, his tummy hurt he’d had diareah in the morning. maybe a reaction to the wound the pain maybe just bacteria in the gut acting up. We lay him down on a blanket in the veranda I gave him an ibuprofen and he went and drank the whole cup full of water in one go. Bad idea he puked again. I told Hapsa to see to it that only drank small amounts at a time. And made him stay laying there all morning under observation any sign of infection and I would go to town and get him some antibiotics. By afternoon he was feeling better and restless I let him go. He’s healed in record time. he will have a scar of course but it just adds to his charm. maybe it will remind him not to pull the tail on the donkey.

A story of folly and heroism of our little protagonist. And he was well rewarded he got to talk on the telephone for the first time in his life. Shindouk hearing of his injury asked to speak with him and told him if he was good and stayed closed to me to guard our house and protect me in his absence he’d bring him a “cadeau” from Bamako. Oh was he excited and oh did is little eyes sparked: he’d talked to “baaba’ on the telephone and “baaba” was going to bring him a gift. Shindouk returned with his clients not having had the time to get any gifts for anyone except a packet of dried apricots that he brought for me, they were the sulphured kind but hey. I told him how much Abdalla had been looking forward to his gift and Shindouk went into town and got a little t-shirt and shorts outfit and presented it with a flourish. Abdalla had to come show me and wore it proudly for the next week straight.

Now for the frustration. After a whirlwind or rather a dust storm of activity, camel rides, night on the dunes (in an almost dust storm) a vist of town, a rain storm (our only one so far), outing on the river, hippos, pickup soccer with the neighbourhood kids, souvenirs -getting and giving, and fending off bother the purveyors and receivers (the kids to whom they gave treats or pencils etc, were almost as pernicious as the artisans trying to sell their works), the six cadets and their instructor were off again and calm returned more or less to the house the mass of relatives who descended on us in hopes Shindouk had brought something for them and the host of “artisans” hoping to sell something to the tourists dispersed. I was left with Hapsa.

One morning she’d gone out on an errand and a lady showed up with a bundle hidden under a fold of her moulafa. I was sure it was a baby just as I was sure what she wanted form me: a cure. I told her in my choppy hassaniya that I was not a doctor and she should go to the hospital of PMI (protection maternal and infantile) she insisted, I insisted. She uncovered her bundle a bit to give me a glimpse of an emaciated thing with loose skin on flaccid limbs that looked more like a soup chicken than a baby. It was pitiable, but I am still not a doctor. I went to the fence between our house and the neighbours and called Handan. He is a salt minor in toudani come home since it is the off season- too hot for caravans and mining. I am not sure if he is Songai or Bella (descendant of the slaves of the Tuaregs thus having acquired their traditions and language), it is immaterial to me since he speaks both languages as well french. I asked him to please help me explain to this lady that I was not a doctor had no medicine and could therefore not help her she should go to the institutions that can. He did but explained to me that she know that but thought I might be able to help her anyway.

Now that I had someone to translate I could ask her what the trouble was at least, but if she wanted me to advise her about her baby she should at least show it to me. I can’t very well diagnose a lump of faded indigo. She uncovered the bundle and I got a better look the the skin and bones that were her baby. After some prodding she tells me that the trouble is his size he was maybe longer than a new born but he wasn’t any bigger than one otherwise and he was three months old. further prodding finally unearthed the information that she fed him three times a day no not her breast there wasn’t any milk, (she didn’t look underfed and said she ate and drank, so I wonder if the lack of milk was because she didn’t give the breast and so it dried up) she gave it a drink made of millet flower and baobob powder.

I told the child was not only mal nourished but undernourished and was in fact starving to death and what she needed to do was feed him better. and more than three times a day, milk, or rice water or the millet flour drink or or very liquid porridge were all good choices and to give, little many times a day.

She came back the following day in the evening this time with another woman who spoke some Songai. neigher hapsa or handan were around but with a combination of songai and hassaniya I was able to communicate. She wanted to take the baby to the PMI but she didn’t have the money for the consultation of prescription of whatever they charge for. She wanted me to give her them money. I know they are just going to tell her the same I did, for a price, maybe prescribe some sore of fancy formula powdered milk by nestle that costs a fortune. I asked her if she didn’t give him any milk, doesn’t she have a goat or a sheep, no. well couldn’t se buy some fro 50 francs (10 cents) a day she could get enough. she doesn’t have the money. well what about the millet flour drink? none and no money. what to do is it truth or just an attempt to be sure I will give her the money she wants. Shindouk usually handles this stuff. Sure I give consultations sometimes but if we are going to give money he handles the who and how much its his money. I make a phone call and brief him.

He gets annoyed. Tell her to bugger off you don’t have the money to be giving out to random people whom you don’t even know, if she’s a friend or related or how closely, I left you with the food money and that’s it if you go giving it out to people what will you eat. (true, I have money of my own but it is in the bank in USA and CA. here manly man Shindouk supports us that’s his right and his obligation according to Islamic and Malian law.) Tell her to go away and come back when I return I will deal with it. Find out her name and relationship to me and send me and SMS.

I go back out and ask if they know Mohamed Lemine. Blank looks. I repeat it. Who? Where? Here this house. No, who is he? The man of the house. OH. Pause. The one had the grace to look embarrassed. The mother just looked like what does that have to do with me. I figure she’s not related, even distantly and she would have known his name. I tell them that he is not here and there is no money till he comes back. When should they return? I don’t know in a few days. They leave but later the woman returns alone and says that she wants me to give her something to feed her baby. I tell her I don’t understand what she wants I don’t it was only the gestures that went with the words that got me that far. I tell her I haven’t anything. I don’t. we don’t have anything in the house but a few spices we have been buying each day just enough for the meal, I haven’t gotten around to stocking up and won’t until Shindouk returns. She kept insisting, I decided to let her sit there and went about my business.

The following morning she arrived again this time with an old lady. Hapsa called me out. I had pitied her wanted to help wished I did have the means to give her some food anyway. Now I was annoyed. I told Hapsa to translate. I have told her three times what she needs to do for the baby I have told her I don’t have any money to give her. The baby needs to EAT or it will die... etc. etc. The woman insisted she had not money not even for milk. I asked what the baby had eaten the day before. Nothing. I asked what she had eaten. porridge. Did she give the baby any. No. Why not! he is too small. No he isn’t, just make sure it is cool and water it down some if it is too thick. No, he is too small to eat porridge. Normally I would not recommend “solid” food for a 3 month old either but if it's that or starve... jeez lady. Look if he goes on much longer like this he WILL DIE, and it will be your fault because you refuse to feed him! if you have the means to make porridge you had the means to give him a little milk. I would think a mother would be willing to go without even, if necessary so that her child could eat. But what do I know.

What I do know is you came to me for advice, I told you I wasn’t a doctor and you insisted thinking I would be able to help anyway now follow my advice or get out of my house. I have no patience for someone, who by her own pig-headedness, is going to kill her child. I was angry and more so when Hapsa translated that she came to me because I was a tubob and they said I would have some medicines to give her. The day they develop a pill that will cure starvation let me know. She left and I slammed the gate. Gassa rah maa rek. and for a moment I meant it. Anybody who out of shear determination to have money, tubob, medicine or nothing, was going to starve her child to death deserved to have God shorten her life. But as He says “vengeance is mine” therefore not mine, and I turned away let Him decide whether he wants to shorten her life or something else or nothing at all. I only have to look at myself in the mirror.

Huwa moujnouna I said to Shindouk’s older sister who stopped by for a visit and had been giving a running litany of advice on what and how to feed the child to the old lady while I argued with the mother. She agreed with me that the woman was indeed nuts and began giving me a running litany of what she already told the other.

Children have proved to be very tough to kill and maybe this one won’t die, maybe someone will convince his mother to feed him what she has available or give her some money to buy other stuff. For his sake I hope so, for her I don’t have anything more to say.

Miranda Dodd
8 june 2006