Bolivia: Healing More than Wounds
by Alison Rader Campbell
Alison Rader Campbell reports for All the World on the steps taken by a corps in Bolivia to reach out to homeless people, forming relationships and providing for their needs
IN a bright, tree-dotted plaza in La Paz, Bolivia, a group of about 30 homeless people waited to see the doctor and the team from the local Salvation Army. There were mainly old-looking men with crusty sores on their shins and feet, wounded heads and ears, red and inflamed eyes. Two or three younger women and a group of younger men, more wary-looking, sat on the grass nearby.
For some time now, members of The Salvation Army’s Tejar Corps have been visiting the plaza because it is a place where homeless people tend to gather. On this occasion the locals were joined by my husband Dr Ian Campbell and me, from The Salvation Army’s International Headquarters Health Services, Major Martha Magallanes and Captain Paulina Condori de Marquez from the Latin America Regional Health Services team, and Major Gerd Dahlin Oberg from the Army’s divisional headquarters.
The team from the corps included the corps officers, Captains Leonor and Marcos Moya, and two women, one with her 15-year-old daughter Maria*.
|A homeless man has a clean dressing applied to his wounded hand|
|The Salvation Army team sets up its temporary surgery|
|A corps member doesn’t let her baby stop her from reaching out to those in need|
|A homeless man with fresh food and his wounded leg dressed using papaya skin|
A table was set up with a few materials: a large bottle of mineral water, a bottle of medicinal alcohol, a bottle of iodine solution, cotton and bandage gauze, one pair of scissors and a set of tweezers. The total cost to set up this little surgery would be no more than US$20.
Dr Campbell and Major Magallanes began to clean and dress wounds while the women from the corps and Maria observed what needed to be done. They helped with the next patient before, eventually, they were ready to perform some basic medical tasks on their own. Several men had tried to wrap their sores in newspaper but they took advice about using readily-available papaya skin instead. After they had been shown the best way to dress the wounds they agreed to help each other the next time the dressings needed changing.
People continued to push their way in front of the doctor and the team, asking to be seen, while the team members concentrated on one person at a time. Some were only asking for their eyes to be washed with clean water.
Captain Condori de Marquez began talking with one of the younger girls, Graciella*, who was crying. They sat down together on the edge of the grass for 20 minutes while she sobbed. She pulled up her left sleeve to show a wide open wound on her wrist. She had tried to kill herself. She wanted to see her family, she said, and knew where they were, but felt they didn’t have time for her.
While the others continued dressing wounds, Dr Campbell looked at Graciella’s wrist and said it needed stitches. Major Oberg ran to the nearby pharmacy for suture and a needle. Then, two team members held Graciella’s other hand, rubbed her back and sang with her while the painful stitching was done. In the middle of all this, Graciella’s boyfriend appeared, put a hand towards her face, and then slapped her cheek. (He had told Paulina that he sniffs glue but is trying to stop.)
After tearfully and bravely enduring the stitching, Graciella went with a smile to join the other girls who were having their hair braided. It was as if nothing had happened.
Food was distributed and after the older men ate they simply lay down on the pavement until there was a pile of bodies, asleep together for safety and warmth.
When Maria was asked what she thought about the experience, she said she was not sure. Someone suggested that it would be better if she knew the stories of the people and pointed out Graciella, who had been so sad. Maria spoke to Graciella and gave her a hug before the younger homeless people headed off down the street.
Back at the corps, the whole group discussed the experience and decided what they should do next. The people who gather at the plaza made it clear that they would prefer any follow-up to take place back there rather than at the corps. The team members agreed to this – it makes sense to provide help where they feel comfortable and it’s also better because the corps building has a daycare and school programme running every day which could be disrupted by large numbers of people arriving for treatment or other contact.
Weekly visits will continue with food, basic health care and advice, and pastoral support being provided, and the team will look for and encourage those who want to find ways to change the circumstances they live in. Maria is only 15 but she can be a friend to Graciella if accompanied by two other women, so that two people keep the connection at any one time. With Graciella’s help they hope to contact her family.
In this situation the corps members from Tejar have come to realise that people who seem to have lost everything still seek relationships. The presence of God is at work, knitting people together physically and emotionally.
Some would say this is a great example of why The Salvation Army was called into being. The Salvationists in this plaza in La Paz are learning to become agents of reconciliation between people – and between people and God.
*Not the girls' real names
Alison Rader Campbell is Community Development Consultant (HIV/Aids and Health) in the Programme Resources Department of The Salvation Army’s International Headquarters