Three weeks after I arrived in Laos I went with Mike out to a village in Viengkham district. This trip was my introduction to The Blessings of the Bai Si. It was also my introduction to Sommai – for Mike and I detoured from the planned schedule just a little.
It was Mike who made the connection, and he came home the night before our trip excited.
“Guess what!” he said, sounding like he had perhaps won two tickets to Disneyland.
“What?” I asked, wary.
“Sommai’s village is close to the village we’ll be in on Friday, so we can go visit! I’ve already told the staff that I want to go up there after the inspections and handover of the water system.”
There were all sorts of things I wanted to say to this… From what you’ve told me, Friday’s schedule already sounds packed. Isn’t this village in the back of beyond? We can’t just waltz in there, smile, and ask to see a sick child. What are we going to say when we get there?
But I didn’t say any of this. Mike has a steady stream of stories like Sommai’s (or worse) cross his desk. After he talks to the staff, makes a decision, and signs the paperwork, he hardly ever gets to hear the end of the story. Here was a chance to close a loop.
That is why Friday afternoon found us scrambling up hills on our way to Sommai’s village. It was raining. It was slippery. We had no umbrella. My sandals, then my feet, then my pants, became caked with thick mud. Halfway up one of the slopes I saw something reaching for my foot – undulating in a skinny, searching, dance.
“There are leeches!” I said.
“Yeah,” Mike said, with a big grin. “There are. Isn’t this a great adventure?”
“You,” I growled, “are an adventure.”
“I know,” Mike said, in ridiculously high spirits. “That’s why you married me. And now you’re stuck with me. Oh, watch out for that buffalo poo!”
After we reached the village Edena led us straight to Sommai’s house. We climbed the bamboo ladder, left our mud-caked shoes at the door, ducked beneath the low thatched roof, and walked into a different world.
A grandmother was tending a small fire in the corner of the room. Between its light, and the sunlight pushing in through the open doorway, it was immediately obvious what had almost killed little Sommai. His mother was holding him in her lap, tilted to one side to keep the enormous abscess up the back of one leg and buttock – an abscess that was still only half healed – off the bamboo floor. When she shifted him later we could see the scars of a second abscess covering his tailbone.
We sat. We smiled. They did not smile at us. Little Sommai started to cry and I didn’t blame him – I couldn’t imagine that strangers had bought anything but pain into his life recently. His mother hushed him. I wished I had thought to bring a toy.
Behind us, other villagers started to slip in the door and line the walls, sinking down to sit quietly and watch us. Edena did her best to translate, and over the course of half an hour, cross-legged together on the floor, we slowly we pieced together the following information.
Yes, Sommai was getting better. His mother was washing the sores every day with water, and sometimes medicine from the hospital.
She bought out a small plastic bag and showed it to us. Inside was a little bottle of iodine, one of hydrogen peroxide, and some gauze.
“Iodine,” Mike said to me. “It kills bacteria but sometimes it also kills good tissue.”
“So does hydrogen peroxide,” I said, pretty sure we were right on this but not absolutely sure. I wished I were a doctor. Or that I had an iPhone with reception so I could check our facts. Or that there was any sort of pharmacy within a reasonable distance. Or that I had a magic wand.
“Do you have anything else to use?” Mike asked her.
“We just built a new gravity-fed water system in this village,” Mike told me. “I saw a tap outside when we came in. At least she doesn’t have to walk as far to get water now.”
“How are they going to pay back the loan?” Mike asked Edena.
“Are you thinking about Matt and Hilary’s money?” I asked Mike.
“Oh yeah,” Mike said, brightening, “Matt and Hilary.”
The bills had come to four million kip, Edena reported to us – about $487. The family was responsible for a quarter of that. They would sell their water buffalo to repay their loan.
“How many buffalos do they have?” Mike asked.
“One,” Edena said. Mike and I looked at each other.
By the end of half an hour Sommai had long since stopped crying, and was looking at Mike with wide, dark, eyes. He even smiled once or twice in response to Mike’s own large grin.
Outside the house, after we had thanked the family for their time and taken our leave, Mike and I conferred.
“They can’t sell their buffalo,” Mike said, visibly concerned. “That’s their only productive asset. Maybe we can give them something now, to help, but I don’t know how much I have on me.”
He pulled out his wallet discretely and started to take inventory.
I turned to Edena.
“Is that good idea?” I asked. “Or not very good idea?”
“Not very good idea,” she said, shaking her head.
“Let’s talk about it later,” I said, motioning him to put the money away. “It wouldn’t be good coming from us directly. Not right now, anyway.”
“Yeah. How about I just buy some little snacks for the kids then?” Mike asked, searching for something, anything, we could actually do.
“That’s OK,” Edena said.
So Mike bought some snacks and ran them back up to the house. When he came back he was smiling.
“You should have seen how he beamed when I gave him the snacks,” Mike said. “The adults put him on his feet and helped him walk across to the door to get them.”
“I hope they’re doing a lot of that,” I said. “He’s lost a lot of muscle tone on that side.”
We were mostly silent on the walk back to village #1. How was it possible that we could be right there, in the village, sitting down with the family, and still feel so helpless?
[Next time in Part III of this story, Score One For Policy, Mike makes a difference one piece of paperwork at a time]
- When Helping is Hard (Part 1): That sort of decision
- When Helping is Hard (Part 2): In the village
- When Helping is Hard (Part 3): Score one for policy
- When Helping is Hard (Part 4): Money, it’s complicated