During the hand-shaking rounds on my second day at the Embassy, Elizabeth told me that her guard Frank's wife died at Kamuzu Central Hospital the day after giving birth just one week previously. Elizabeth and her partner played an active role in ensuring that the wife received adequate prenatal care and everything seemed to be going well. Frank is 28, his wife Grace was 26. The two of them met, fell-in-love, married and got pregnant within the span of two years. Elizabeth said they were both kind and naturally bright people who should have been doing better in life but were poor because they were born poor and their families were poor. Grace's death was a huge shock to everyone.
About a week later I met Frank at Elizabeth's and together we made our way to his mother-in-law's house where his baby girl was staying. Frank told me more of their story on my second visit. He said that Grace delivered in a health center and everything went well with the birth. After seeing his wife and sharing the thrill of their new daughter, he ran home to gather food and other items they needed. When he got back to the hospital the nurse told him that his wife was incredibly sick and would be transferred to the ICU at KCH. The next day everything seemed to deteriorate. Neither Frank nor his wife knew what was happening, but he said there was a moment when she realized she was dying. She cried about leaving him and the children. (Grace also had a boy, he is six years old now. His dad abandoned Grace as soon as he learned she was pregnant. Frank considers this boy his son and the boy has never known another dad.) They cried together, and she made him promise to take good care of their daughter.
After he finished the story Frank looked at the boy lovingly and as he tearfully shook his head he said, "This one gives me a lot of problems, every night he asks, "Where's mom? Where's mom? And he just cries when I work night shifts and don't come home."
Frank showed me the death certificate; it said "toxemia of pregnancy." Grace died from eclampsia, a little understood disease of pregnancy the end result of which is multi-system organ failure. Although women do become preeclamptic in the developed world they rarely develop eclampsia (the diagnosis is given once a woman seizes) and very rarely die. Here, this is a much more common cause of death for various absurd reasons (I'll leave out speech). Frequently, the diagnosis is not made until there is a seizure, which happens fairly late in the pathological process.
Frank is clearly a special person and adores his little Grace. Although she doesn't live in his house, he lives only 1000 meters away and spends all his off-duty time with her. He asked me to come visit regularly to make sure she is healthy and growing well, and she is. She's sweet and chubby and usually bundled in multiple layers of tenderly knitted outfits (sweating in the African heat), clearly a dearly loved child. I don't do much, just hold her, and reassure Frank, and deliver formula when his supply runs low. He's a great dad.
Last week Elizabeth stopped by to tell me that Frank took Grace for her well-baby check and was told that she was the healthiest baby of all those who visited the clinic that day. Elizabeth said Frank was glowing.
Yesterday Frank called to tell me that he had something to tell me and he would come to the Embassy today to see me. ? ? ?
This morning I found Frank waiting for me at the entrace of the Embassy and he said that he decided to volunteer at the Crisis Nursery one day every week, "as a way to thank you people for everything you've done for me." I felt like laughing and crying all at once. This is someone who works six days a week and earns about US$30 a month, has lost his wife, is raising two children and still has a surplus of love to share with orphans. Frank just laughed at my reaction, said "Thank you" and "When are you coming?"