July 15, 2005
In almost every group you encounter there is one person that just sort of grates on you. They are hard to warm up to, and seem to have what you deem to be unlikable qualities. At the Ndirande Handicapped Club, the person who fell into this category was Emmanuel. He was at an awkward age. He is probably about 15 or 16 years old and still growing. His hands feet and head appear to be too large for his body. Heather, Brooke and Aukje had trouble liking him because he was overly friendly. He would shake your hand and hold your shoulder in greeting and not let go. It could be annoying. He loved shaking hands, and would sometimes shake your hands five or six times in one afternoon. We had other work to do. Sometimes we would duck out to the way to avoid his firm handclasps and constant smiles.
But Emmanuel did not seem to mind. He was always happy. He loved doing crafts each week. He would shape his play dough and proudly hold it up to show you. He was always bugging me to take his picture, so I seldom did. He was delighted when I would and shouted with glee and broke into gales of childish laughter when I showed him the picture on the camera’s display. He was always smiling. It got on your nerves. We gradually got used to his ways and his “in your face” style. When the group from Waynesburg was here, he started singing Christmas carols (in May) to Jane Owen. She joined him and they belted out melodies all afternoon.
It was obvious that Emmanuel was mentally challenged. One day Weike explained to me that he was an epileptic and had seizures so often that they caused brain damage. “He was such a nice little boy before all this happened,” she lamented. “He is still so friendly.” She explained that they had taken him to the doctor and gotten him medicine to control the epilepsy. It made me look at him in a whole new light, ashamed of my previous attitude. I wondered how many other people I judge unfairly.
Then on our field trip to the hospital, something happened. As we returned to the dingy lobby after delivering our gifts, Brooke spotted Emmanuel on the floor in the midst of a grand mal seizure. I turned and got Weike, who is a nurse. Emmanuel’s brother and another man knelt beside Weike and helped her hold him so he did not injure himself. I looked around for something to put into his mouth. I had never seen anyone in the throws of a seizure before, but I remembered from my Girl Scout first aid training that you should try and prevent them from swallowing their tongue. I couldn’t find anything and we just stood there helplessly watching until it was over. A nurse from the hospital, who was with us, did nothing. We asked someone else from the hospital to go for help, but no one came. They could not even find a pillow for him to rest his head on when it was over. I realized how different things would have been if he was in a hospital lobby in a more developed country. There was not even a stretcher to put him on to take him to the emergency room. We borrowed Andrew’s wheel chair and took him to the Emergency Room. We thought that he probably needed to have his medication adjusted. He can get it free at the hospital, but often they run out. The Emergency Room was jammed and it would have been hours before they were able to see him, so we took him back home to Ndirande, and gave his brother transportation money so that he could go back to the hospital the next day.
As they put Emmanuel into the van, he still looked dazed and was limp with exhaustion. At that moment I would have given anything to see his annoying smile.