This blog started as a way of keeping friends up-to-date with Zambian life but it now also helps generate money for the poor here in Chikuni. If you like what you read please click on an ad to help the people of Chikuni.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The most repugnant sight of my life

A Some of our clients in Gwembedamp cloth covers the woman’s left leg, just below her kneecap. The ever-present flies hover, buzz, land, take off and dance on and around the cloth. I can see it’s sitting on raised flesh and I suddenly think that I really don’t want her to lift that piece of cloth off of her leg. I sit with the HBC nurse, a HBC client and this woman, another client. The woman didn’t show up for the monthly outreach meeting and news reached the nurse that she had a bad ‘sore’ on her leg and couldn’t walk with it. The reality was far more perverse, disgusting and downright unbelievable!

One of the sure fire signs that someone is HIV+ is the presence of Kaposi's sarcoma. It is a cancerous growth found either internally or externally on the sufferers’ body. Now I have googled the condition as part of the research for this article but I can tell you that nothing online compares to what I saw when the woman lifted the cloth…

After a few minutes of talking with the nurse, the woman very tentatively lifted the cloth off her leg. What I found myself looking at was a cancerous growth that had been left unattended for many, many months. It was hideous beyond anything that I can describe to you here! It was 10 to 12 centimetres in length and almost as width as her leg. It had grown up to 2 centimetres off the surface of her skin but not evenly, oh no! There were lumps, hollows and sores like little craters all over. The ‘flesh’ was brown with cream coloured puss, congealed blood and a clear sticky fluid covering various sections. I really, really wished she hadn’t taken the cloth away and yet, like passing a car crash, I was compelled to stare at its monstrous and unimaginable appearance. I wanted to look away, honestly, but I was so totally shocked by what I saw that my neck refused to move my head sideways. Then to add insult the injury I watched as the flies moved in, almost as quickly as the cloth was lifted. They stormed all over the monstrosity and even with the woman’s persistent swiping, a few refused to leave the ‘mana from heaven’. I thought I was going to be sick. I was very glad I had yet to eat lunch and was unsure if I still had an appetite; yes me, David Shorten, man of three stomachs and two hollow legs!

After what seemed like an eternity, our nurse had seen enough and the woman got sick of chasing persistent flies, who were as determined to lay eggs on the abomination as drunk men are to pull at the end of a night in a club. An example of the cancer, though this is microscopic in comparison!I blinked away the mental image and realised that my mouth was wide open. I quickly closed it before a fly decided to try its luck. I blinked some more and then turned my head and tried not to think about what I had just seen. Of course, ALL I COULD THINK ABOUT was what I had just seen. I shivered despite the 26 degree heat and wondered what sort of idiot this woman was. I mean, why, why, oh dear Lord why, would you let it get that bad? The woman was near tears as the nurse explained the situation to her. The nurse suggested she come with us to Chikuni but to my continued disbelieve she refused, quoting a need to do laundry as an excuse. LAUNDRY!?! This woman looks like she’s going to need to have her leg amputated and she’s worried about the feckin laundry… I stared at her face, then at the cloth (now covered with flies), then back to her face, then back to her leg and just felt totally lost as to how this situation has occurred. She was insistent though that she remain and promised that she would go to Chikuni the next day. So we had no choice and leave her to be harassed by the flies and the midday sun.

Later, the nurse explained to me that it’s a common side effect of being HIV+ and that that growth is almost certainly a sign that the woman hasn’t been taking her anti-retroviral drugs. Much to my disbelief, the woman did turn up at the hospital the next day, true to her word. I haven’t heard what has happened since but irrespective, I am still left with the sight of that growth imprinted on the inside of my eyelids. The thing of dreams, it most definitely was not!

Your reporter in the middle of visual trauma


  1. Hi David,
    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences in this blog! I came across your article in Jesuits and Friends, also a gift to the First World. You see, your sharing is particularly special to me because I was in your position in 2005. Though I am an American, I requested that JM send me to one of their missions, and Chikuni became my destination! I remember the heat you speak of, the shocking ailments, and unusual fruit. I hope and pray you're enjoying guava, passion fruit, and "Washington oranges" (the big green ones)! Blessings on you and your work. If Tadeusz and Andrew are still there, send them my best!
    Steph Bronner

  2. PS - and how could I forget Monica Nsofu or Dr. Claudia? Ms Nsofu was the long-time home-based care nurse, but she has likely retired. In case you meet her, do send her my love.

  3. Monica is still here working tirelessly to persuade, badger and other shove people in the right direction. Claudia and Andrew are also still here but Ted has just moved on to... higher matters :)
    I will of course pass on your regards to all of them...