Tuesday, April 13

Nine and a half months in Kenya: Freaks

The literature of my childhood and recent months has been littered with freaks and aberrations, from the mundane bearded ladies and dog boys in R.L. Stine's carnivals of horror through to the transcendent transvestites and lame of Flannery O'Connor's short stories.

My life has not been so littered. I imagine this is the result of living first in a town of just 1,000, not nearly large enough to provide the services that those with abnormal bodies may require, and then moving to a college campus populated by the young and affluent, of good stock and with the resources to manage and even cure physical aberrations. I long considered these freaks something akin to elves and werewolves, creatures of fantasy. Popular enough in the imagination but less than entrenched in reality.

Like so much in the past nine months, this has changed as well. Now, I see deformities the size of a child's fist behind ears and on the backs of necks. I share matatus with albinos who wear the same coiled, piled hair weaves as their colored sisters. I pass dwarves with back problems who can only walk with the aid of crutches on the street. Having never before known someone completely deaf or blind, I am now responsible for one of each at the center.

The most common are the afflicted by polio. On a two-room school built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2006 in Pokot, there is a ragged poster urging parents to vaccinate their children. It is a reminder still necessary in the cities. If the afflicted are lucky, it is only a single limb. A single crutch can replace a twisted foot. A useless arm can be covered by a sports jacket, the only evidence being a dangling sleeve. The less fortunate wear their sandals on their hands and drag themselves across the rough roads or sit on a modified tricycle which they can pedal with their hands.

There is a sense of there but for the grace of God go I. Lucky does not begin to describe not only being born into a loving middle-class family but also America where vaccinations are mandatory, a full array of nutrients are readily available and where accommodations are made for the otherwise abled. The homeless I worked with in the House of Charity were less than exemplars of human health, but even they were better off than many in Kenya. Health care reform, withstanding, America takes care of its people far better than most.

Greater than this feeling, though, is one of amazement. Losing an arm, losing a leg, losing sight, losing hearing are terrifying thoughts for me. I depend on them. Without them, I do not know what I would do. Collect disability insurance payments, I assume. With all its medicines and procedures and technologies, the physically aberrant still break through in America, but there are places for them there that cater to their particular needs and keep them away from the otherwise healthy. In Kenya the aberrant are in the offices and on the streets. They are living. Yes, some are reduced to begging but many more are not.

Losing an arm, losing a leg, losing sight, losing hearing are not the worst that can happen. Unfortunate, yes, but not the end. In my long isolation from the most severe of physical imperfections, I forgot that.

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