The man who wanted to shake the doctor's hand
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Extract from 'A yellow butterfly on an elephant's foot
‘In these out-of-the-way rural areas few people can speak English,’ Anthon picked up where we left off a few kilometres earlier. ‘For my clinics in Opuwo, I employed a translator to help me communicate with the Ovahimba. My Herero keeps me out of trouble, but is far from fluent enough to allow me to take a patient’s case history and make a diagnosis.’
‘Any special stories?’ I nudged.
‘Many,’ he chuckled, ‘but I’ve got a favourite.’
‘So?’ I urged as he just sat there, arms wrapped around Henry’s steering wheel, smiling at his own recollection.
‘One morning an old Ovahimba man came to see me. I asked the translator to find out what his ailment was. The man explained he’d been suffering from diarrhoea for many years. His life was miserable. He had little energy and was desperate for a cure. He’d been to the State Hospital on numerous occasions where he always had to sit in line for the entire day, just to be sent home with a little yellow plastic envelope filled with paracetamol tablets and a few multivitamins.’
He navigated Henry through a slippery puddle. The carved Makalani seeds dangling from the rear-view mirror swung rhythmically from side to side.
‘I listened to his story, then prompted the translator to get him to list all his symptoms. His was a classic case of Amoebiasis, an illness often contracted by people drinking water from communal wells shared by animals. Although it’s a horrible disease it’s quite easy to cure with the correct treatment.’
The road straightened out again. He relaxed back into his seat.
‘As I told you before, I always took a variety of medicines along to Opuwo. I gave him the right medication to effectively cure his condition and explained how he should take it. He paid me for the consultation, couldn’t thank me enough and went on his way.’
We drove through another patch of mud. Blobs of clay plonked onto the windscreen, shuddered, then wriggled sideways, painting brown squiggles across my field of vision.
‘Two months later, on a subsequent visits to Opuwo, I saw the same man sitting amongst the waiting patients. While busy with the queue of people in front of him, I racked my brain, trying to figure out how I could possibly have misdiagnosed him before. He merely sat there, showing no sign of being impatient or agitated, waiting for his turn to talk to me. When I came to him, I asked the translator to find out why the tate kuru was back, whether the medication didn’t improve his condition.’
‘Explain to me what exactly tate kuru means,’ I interjected, ‘you’ve been using the word often.’
‘A tate is a man and kuru translates as old. Not old in the negative, western sense, but rather as a form of respect. Calling a man a tate kuru is therefore a respectful way to address a male person of your own age or older. For a woman, you would use meme, as I called you just now when we spoke to Queen Elizabeth.’
‘Okay. Now it makes sense,’ I said. ‘So what did the translator say?’
‘He told me, “No, Doctor, he says he’s never been better. He came back to shake your hand and to tell you that you’re a blessed man; that you changed his life; that God will bless you for what you did for him.” You could’ve pushed me over with your little finger, the answer was so unexpected. I asked the interpreter to find out where the man lived, curious to know how far he’d travelled to see me. “Doctor,” he answered after a lengthy consultation with the old man, which included a lot of arm swinging and pointing into the distance, “If you walk from here, 90km into the mountains, that way,” he pointed in a north-westerly direction, “you’d get to the village where he lives.”
If you enjoyed this story, you might enjoy reading my book, ‘A yellow butterfly on an elephant’s foot.’
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