Monday, July 22, 2019 09:29


My job with one of the larger aid agencies took me across the length and breath of Africa and I’ve grown accustomed to human misery at its very worst. Much of my work keeps me in offices – often no more than shacks, but sometimes I get the chance to go out into the field where I rejoice in meeting the wonderful people of this enchanting land. One such occasion came about when I was in an area of the continent that is as dry and barren as any and which offers perhaps the greatest challenge of all to aid workers. I had arranged to meet my boss, Martin, an African with surprisingly fair skin and handsome features, who was to accompany me on the journey north into an area where more than the usual number of children were dying of hunger and disease.

Upon arrival at the first village we went straight to the hospital – a single story, almost roofless, building that had at some time suffered a serious fire, and which had electricity for no more than an hour or two each day. Martin needed to make contact with one of our workers, Keith, who, in this over-burdened environment, acted as doctor, pharmacist and nurse – and general dogsbody when he had time, so I took the opportunity to wander through the building in order to get a better idea of the problems being experienced in this remote part of the country. The ever present heat was stifling and the stench of disease and death hung over every bed. For all my experience I found this place verging on the unbearable and I quickly went out into the fresh air of the compound where our car stood beneath the branches of a tree. I pulled open the passenger door and took a bottle from the cooler bag and broke the seal. As I took the first mouthful of water it suddenly occurred to me that but for the want of this precious liquid there might be fewer people such as those I had seen in the building behind me.

I wandered away from the car just a short distance hoping that by turning my back on the hospital I might in some way assuage the guilt I suddenly felt.

Almost hidden from where Martin had parked the car I found a tiny clump of flowers and it struck me as odd that they should thrive here as easily as if they were in an English country garden. It was only as I stooped to pick one of the red and orange heads that I noticed the mounds of earth that marked a dozen or more graves. I took my flower and headed back to find my boss.

The sudden change of light as I entered the building caused me to take a wrong turn and I found myself in a small room where a child lay on a pallet. She lay on her back with her head turned towards the door, her tiny body slick with perspiration and naked save for a soiled cloth that covered her groin. Her distended stomach rose and fell with each laboured breath and her eyes, though seeming to look straight at me, appeared sunken and expressionless.

I fell to my knees beside her and said hello to her. ‘My name’s Carmel,’ I said. ‘It means ‘flower’.’ I held the flower out to her and thought I saw some response. What’s your name? I asked.

‘She doesn’t have a name.’ The voice behind me startled me and I turned to see Keith and Martin standing in the doorway. ‘We found her early one morning just as it was getting light, dumped at the door of the building. No-one knows how she got here or whether her mother will come back.’

‘She seems quite ill,’ I offered feebly, unable to think of anything better to say.

‘Oh, she ill alright,’ the doctor said. ‘She’s suffering from starvation and malaria. If it was one or the other we’d be able to offer some hope, but put the two together and they almost always end up dead.’

I winced at that casual way the doctor spoke of death in front of his patient. ‘Couldn’t you at least give her a name before she … while she’s here?’
It was as we were about to start our journey back that I asked Martin to stop the car for just a short moment. I ran back into the building and found the doctor. ‘I want to give her a name,’ I demanded.

He half looked up at me from the gunshot wound he was dressing and said: ‘If it’s what you want to do that’s okay with me, Carmel. Just call in at the office when you leave and write the name of a piece of paper. I’ll make sure she’s known by that name from now on.’

I knelt beside the tiny child again and held the flower close to her, hoping she might be able to smell its sweet freshness. I reached out and placed my hand on her arm. ‘The kind doctor tells me they don’t know your name, little one,’ I said. ‘I’m sure whatever it is it will be the prettiest name any little girl has ever had.’ The room was so quiet that I thought I could hear her heart beating. ‘I’m going to call you Dawn, for a little girl who appeared early one morning out of nowhere.’

We had been on the road a good ten minutes when I realised I still held the flower in my hand. ‘I wish I’d left this with her,’ I said, almost to myself.

‘Left what with who, Mel?’

‘The little girl – Dawn. I named her Dawn … and she smiled when I showed her the flower,’ I went on.

‘I don’t suppose it meant anything to her. She’s probably not interested in flowers.’

‘Every girl is interested in flowers,’ I explained. ‘And she did smile when I showed it to her, I’m sure she did.’

That night, under my mosquito net, I dreamed about Dawn. I guess she must have worried me, for my dream took me back to the hospital, where I found her, fit and healthy again, waiting for me so we could start a new life together where we grew flowers. Vases of our flower adorned the wards of every hospital in Africa and supplanted the terribly overworked doctors and nurses: in my dream every child grew up strong and well nourished. The following night my dream became a nightmare of earthy mounds holding the dead.

I was now back at my desk, each day faced with the ever growing paperwork but unable to get Dawn out of my mind. I know she had responded to the flower, and I knew that the doctor would make her better.

Martin was in the habit of asking me out occasionally and I took the opportunity one evening the broach the subject of me going back to see Dawn.

‘I don’t think that would be a good idea at all, Mel,’ he’d said to me the first time I raised the matter. ‘You must know that the chances of her surviving are practically zero.’
Tears had come to my eyes and I think I must have responded with my heart instead of my brain. ‘Damn it, Martin!’ I had shouted. ‘You don’t know anything about her. You didn’t even have the decency to go over to her bedside and talk to her.’

Martin had offered me a condescending smile at that. ‘And if flowers were the answer to sickness we could get rid of all the budding doctors from our universities – stop all the nursing courses …’

‘Don’t patronise me, Martin. You know full well what I mean.’

‘Yes, Mel, I do. Only too well.’

‘And what exactly does that mean?’ I had got angry at that.

‘What you are suggesting is that I allow you to go back to the hospital where you’re going to find this … girl …’

‘Dawn,’ I had shouted. ‘The girl’s name is Dawn.’

‘Okay. Where you’re going to find this Dawn waiting for you, and you’re going to look after her for the rest of her life.’

It was only now that Martin had put it into words that I realised that that was what must be in my mind. Hearing it from him was like a slap in the face. What a dumb fool I was being.
Though I didn’t have any more Dawn dreams I did continue to feel the need to go back, even if it was to satisfy myself that she was on the road to recovery.

It was a week later that Martin came into the office and asked if I was still interested in going back to the hospital. I was overjoyed and had to restrain myself from hugging him.
The following morning, as the sun began to peep above the distant horizon, I ran out to the waiting car and we set off for the long drive to the village.

On arrival at the hospital I stepped down from the car with some degree of hesitation. Not in the least bit uncertain that Dawn would have survived – that was a given, but wondering what my own reactions were likely to be in the event that she might not remember me; that I’d be just another well-fed white face in a land of famine.

Martin had had plenty of time during the journey to prepare me for that eventuality and it had distressed me more than I’d been happy to admit. More than once I had feigned interest in the countryside to hide the tears that stung my cheeks. I knew then that the events that had begun when I stumbled into Dawn’s airless hospital room, events unfolding with each passing hour, were to shape my future as an aid worker. I had committed the greatest folly anyone in my position possibly could: I had allowed my emotions to get the better of me. But what always convinced me I was right was the knowledge that very soon I’d be able to say ‘I told you so.’

I took a bottle of water from the cooler bag and walked over to the clump of flower beside the tree. I plucked one that had the longest stem – so that Dawn would be able to hold it for herself – then walked towards the hospital. I don’t know where Martin went; I just knew that the sooner I found my little friend the longer I’d have with her.

The room, Dawn’s room, was as stiflingly hot as I remembered and the pallet occupied exactly the same position in the room, yet it was empty. It could mean only one thing: I just prayed to God that she hadn’t already returned to her family without my having the opportunity to give her my gift.

I rushed from the room, angry and indignant at the thought of Martin seeing her first. It had been me who saw her eyes respond to my flower; it was me who had faith in her survival; me who had knelt at her side and given her a name.

Martin and the doctor were deep in some whispered conversation when I entered the office and I was blind to the look in their eyes. ‘Where’s Dawn?’ I asked with as much composure as I could muster.

The two men exchanged glances as if weighing up who should be the first to speak. Finally, as Martin held out a hand and took me by the shoulder, I knew Dawn was dead. ‘Mel …’ tears were already filling my eyes as he struggled to find the words. There was no need for either of them to say more.

‘Where is she? Where? For God’s sake just tell me.’ I cried. I fell against Martin’s shoulder, my tears staining the front of his shirt.

‘They had to bury her – outside in the …’

I cannot say what happened inside me during those few minutes, for as I allowed my boss to lead me out of the hospital and across the compound towards the pitiable little graveyard, I was filled with a sudden joy at having been given the chance to know the little girl and give her a name. Gone was all the sorrow in my heart; my tears might simply have been tears at the words of a melancholy poem or song.

As we stood in the shade of the tree I asked Martin if he knew how old Dawn was. ‘Doctor Keith told me she was about five years old,’ he said, his own voice trembling now.

I pulled away from Martin’s comforting embrace and bent to pick another four blooms from the bush at my feet. I walked slowly across the parched soil to where Dawn lay and pushed the five flowers gently into the soil and sprinkled some water around them from my bottle.

Then I turned to my boss and said: ‘Let’s get back to work.’


Copyright © J E Emberson 2009