"Have those numbers always been there?" I asked Mwanafunzi.
"Yes, they've always been there" he said, laughing.
"Hmm, I've never noticed them before."
I found them eerie and wished I hadn't noticed. They acted as exhibit numbers to the throngs of medical students who visited the ward every day. Each dressed in a pressed, knee-length lab coat, they jostled for a better view in the cramped quarters. Every number and its adjoining bed marked a living, breathing example of what they'd read about in their textbooks. It was a museum of medical maladies and misery.
Here I've seen the mothers of the deceased treated with little compassion. Every patient and mother pair was transient, only passing through before the next exhibit came in to replace them or to stake out a corner and share their bed. How many people had slept and died in those beds and how many more would?
I was also there to study and to research. It was easy to feel disconnected when the children looked less and less human the more malnourished they were. I couldn't begin to relate to their lives or to the sacrifices their mothers and families had made to be here.
A nurse leaned over one of the beds, using his cellphone as a timer to check a baby's pulse. In the crib by the back wall, the abandoned boy screamed over the din of crying children that serves as the ward's soundtrack. A nurse stood at his feet, cutting his toenails with a razor blade. Outside the barred windows, three men stood slouched in somber black and white striped jumpsuits and charcoal rubber boots, slashing away at the grass with machetes. A bench had been moved from the critical room to the center of the floor where women sat crammed along it, watching an African soap opera. Under the TV, on the cage which held it, writing on a block of white tape warned, "CAUTION! WET PAINT". It had been there long enough for the paint to dry, and peel, and chip, and for the metal underneath to rust and create orange boils under its turquoise skin.
The bench was pushed back to make room for two nurses and their cart heaped with bottles of colored liquids and pointy syringes. A new admittance was carried over by her mother and placed on her lap. Although seven years old, she was thin and fragile and her frail body sagged into her mother's chest. She embodied the saying "skin and bones". A thick, mucousy liquid slid from the corner of her mouth as she waited for her medicine. Her lifeless eyes stared dead ahead at nothing in particular. A little girl in a mint green and white lace dress crept into the room and hid behind Mwanafunzi, looking at me warily as I smiled at her.
Perhaps emotional detachment is necessary when faced with despair such as this. How can a nurse or doctor or medical student be efficient or effective if they absorb the pain of their patients. Or perhaps empathy is crucial for patients in a place where hope is hard to come by.
In came a woman carrying a silver metal bucket with the same black paint forming "WD1" on the side. Women gathered around her for their afternoon cup of tea.