I had always read that fistula robs women and girls of their hope and dignity. This “fact” was challenged during my trip to Angola this summer with Hope for Our Sisters (HFOS).
Now don’t get me wrong. Obstetric and traumatic fistula are horrific medical conditions that lead to the isolation and abandonment of those suffering under its great weight. It removes all choice, as these sisters of ours are unable to do anything but exist. But, are their dignity and hope really gone?
On this trip, we met fifteen amazing women and girls who suffer from fistula. Their stories broke our hearts and their lack of options made us feel helpless at times. However, they were not sitting by silent. They were not ashamed to look us in the eye. They were able to talk about their hope of another child, working and even studying one day. They believed they would be well.
Where did this come from? This resilience in the midst of despair. This hope where hope should be extinguished. This dignity that fistula was trying so hard to destroy. It was inside them. How could this be? I believe I would have been completely crushed in the same situation. Destroyed.
One of my favorite encounters during this trip was with Maria*. We discovered she was 29 years old and the mother of two children. Her first husband died and her second husband abandoned her after she developed fistula as a result of her fourth pregnancy. (Her first and fourth children both died.)
On the last day of our week in Angola, Jean Campbell, HFOS Board Member, and I checked in with the fistula patients to hold their hands, take pictures and say goodbye. We found Maria in bed awaiting surgery and, using basic Portuguese, asked if she would let us take her photo. Maria said yes, but then gestured to her purse. After I gave it to her, she reached in to find earrings and gracefully put them on. It immediately hit me. She still had dignity deep down that fistula could not reach. This dignity was deep in her heart and soul. The hope that enabled her to face each day had been placed there when she was created. A hope and dignity that had been shredded by fistula, but not totally destroyed.
After this encounter, I considered the other sisters we had met and they had it as well. Pride in their one-room, dirt floor home. Desire to try surgery “one more time”. Hope to have more children, study or work. Smiles and laughter in the face of total adversity. Strength in who there are. I was rocked.
Back in America, I continue to grapple with this. It is my desire to communicate with others about the horrendous hardships and limits faced by those with fistula, while at the same time, share how these sisters of ours have not given up. Another sister named Celia* lives as if already victorious, yet she has colostomy complications as she awaits fistula surgery. I will be working to grasp this amazing quality in these sisters for many days, months and years to come as I have long lived with comfort as a daily companion.
As for Maria*, I was delighted to hear that after surgery she was sent home DRY! DRY for the first time since early 2012. DRY and on her way to reclaim the life fistula tried to steal from her. May all of our sisters with fistula join her along this victorious path. May we remember the dignity within each one of our sisters.
*Their names have been changed to protect our sisters who so openly shared with us.
© 2013 by Brooke F Sulahian