Saturday, February 11

mariama. part 2. human


"You left with a pig and brought back a human."

The man was partly right. They'd brought Mariama back to Guinea. And of course, she was human.

But she was never a pig, or a "parasite" as she was often referred to by those in her village. An abused and lonely woman, yes. One not touched in almost 20 years, starved for love and kindness, certainly. But always human.

Mariama was despised because of a benign tumor about the size of a grapefruit that grew from her mouth. A familiar sad story in West Africa, a body had gone wrong in a land without access to healthcare. For more than two decades, the mass grew slowly and slightly larger, attracting flies and repelling people. It smelled of rot and infection. She'd cover it whenever she came out of her small mud hut to forage for food. People thought she was cursed and avoided her.

You would think maybe she'd find kindness from some of the other women her age. You'd think just once in a while, they'd let her eat with them, cook with them, wash clothes with them. Dance with them. But she wasn't one of them. She would never be.

- - -

A year ago, a Christian missionary woman who had befriended her brought news of a hospital ship. Jamie heard about the Mercy Ship in Liberia and emailed pictures to us. We said we thought we could operate on Mariama. Thus began the long process to get her here.

Papers and visas had to be obtained, but more importantly, both Mariama and her village leaders had to be convinced that the three-day journey to Liberia even made sense. Why should she go anywhere? But Jamie and her husband Cal were patient and persistant. I emailed before and after photos of Beatrice, another woman Mariama's age with a large tumor. I hoped the images might make something tip, and I think they did. Soon, Jamie's husband called from a satellite phone deep in the bush. They were coming. The village leaders had finally given their blessing and even bought Mariama a new outfit.

Then a series of firsts for Mariama.

Outside the ship, I explained we'd be using cameras to tell her remarkable story. I snapped photos and showed them to her on the digital back. She smiled and laughed, bowing her head shyly at the attention. I'd get to know this gesture well. A mixture of gentle shame and martyrdom. But also one familiar to me from other patients. I knew like so many others, Mariama would leave the ship transformed.

Walking up the gangway was easy, but her first flight of stairs down to the hospital turned into a three-hour negotiation. Her first ship, first ocean, first doctors. Florescent lights and narrow corridors. I could only imagine what the ship looked like through her eyes. Yet every step was finally bravely taken, each new fear eventually overcome.

Mariama's surgery was relatively simple for Dr. Gary Parker. He'd started removing tumors for free just a year after hers began growing. And this one didn't even make the top 100. Mariama was in the recovery room by lunchtime.

A few days later, I saw Mariama off in the early morning. She was glowing, dressed in a beautiful turquoise dress fashion designers would covet. Then after tearful goodbyes, she was gone. Two ship crewmembers went with her and the missionaries to officially "present" her back to her village.

Three days later, they did.

They told me it couldn't have gone any better. Mariama had changed so much many simply didn't recognize her. She was a celebrity at the border crossings. And back home, mobbed in the market Mariama was generous to all, offering smiles and handshakes. The woman for years rejected, kind to those who had despised her, living a selflessness I hope put them all to shame.

And then she danced with the women.

An awkward dance practiced only in her mind for 20 years, as they sang, "Mariama's back today. She's well today, today, today."


4 minute video. surgery and homecoming
all mariama images
words. part one
more patient stories/photos
tell a friend about mercy. 
buy mercy


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