This article depicts the heartache many women experience due to Vesico-vaginal Fistulas (VVF), and the hope Mercy Ships can bring. It also gives a glimpse into the world view of much of West Africa.
Abra sits quietly as she remembers the journey of her life. For 24 years, she has known suffering and great emotional pain. One day and one event changed the course of her life for over two decades.
On that day, many years ago, Abra went into labor. It was her fifth child, and she had managed all of her previous labors by herself at home. But this time was different. After struggling with the pain and pressure, she was taken to the hospital for a caesarian section. “There was no hope,” Abra remembers sadly. “Even the doctor lost hope.” The struggle was devastating. The baby died, and Abra remained in a coma for five days.
When she awoke, she learned that her husband had decided to leave her. Then, a few days later, she realized she was incontinent. The condition that Abra suffered from is known as VVF (vesicovaginal fistula). It is an injury caused by obstructed labor, and it results in a continual leakage of urine, feces, or both. Unfortunately, it is a condition that is much too common in developing countries, where women have little access to medical care.
The condition exacts a terrible emotional toll, as well. Abra was ostracized by her family, friends, and community. “Everybody in our area knows about my sickness,” Abra says quietly with downcast eyes. “All of them know.”
Over the years, people often mistreated Abra. They made signs and yelled insults at her. When she stood up, they often checked her clothes to see if they were wet. For a few years, she was able to stay with some relatives. However, when they died, she was on her own in the bush, secluded from the world. She was isolated from every kind of help and support – physical, mental, and emotional.
Abra says she only got through this time with God’s help. “In those times of challenges and pain, I did weep most of the time. I didn’t have anybody to come to my rescue. I spent most of my time in my hidden place, where I wept.” She struggled with depression that made it difficult for her to eat, and she longed for the day her suffering would come to an end. “So the only option is to wait for God’s time when I will join him after death, and it will be the end of everything. This was all I could tell myself before the ship came,” she says sadly.
Then, in 2010, Mercy Ships sailed into the port of Lomé, Togo. The arrival of the hospital ship brought hope for Abra – something she had not felt for a long time. Soon she received a free successful surgery. After spending a few weeks in the ship’s hospital, Abra was able to go home.
She felt like a new woman, but her joy was short-lived. Tragically, a few weeks later, Abra was the victim of a brutal rape that ruined the surgical repair. She was back in the same nightmare she had experienced for two decades. “When my sickness came back, I was confused and lost,” Abra explains. Sadly, the ship had already left, and she had nowhere to turn.
Abra took refuge with her brother, who required her to be the housekeeper for the entire family. The work was very difficult for her. When she was unable to complete all the tasks, she was driven out of the home. She was only allowed to re-enter the house at certain hours to sleep. She had to awake every morning at 4:00 to leave the house and had to wait until late in the evening to return. She was not allowed to use the kitchen or even take a cup to drink from. She could not share in any of the food. Her brother’s family wanted to make sure she suffered because they were uncomfortable with her sickness.
Abra struggles to hold back tears as she recalls those days. “My brother did not agree with me. According to him, I’m telling a lie – I am not sick because I didn’t lose weight.” She quietly says a prayer and pauses before continuing, “My brother mistreated me. He mistreated me to the point that I got seriously sick.” The pain of her brother’s rebukes and abuse almost destroyed Abra’s spirit.
Finally, she found reprieve with her aunt. “She told me I smelled like a dead corpse before joining her. But the hands of God are upon me. Today I am here. I am still alive today,” she says.
Less than a year later, Abra’s daughter contacted her, telling her the wonderful news that Mercy Ships had returned! “For me, Mercy Ships has been sent from God to me, and I know that the ship is here to heal, I was hopeful. I didn’t know other people, too, have this sickness, I thought I was alone. But now, I know that I’m not the only one. I’m confident, and God is with me.”
Now, Abra has healed from her second surgery with Mercy Ships. She is living with her daughter and has been accepted back into the family. “I feel better now. No, rather, great! And I thank the Lord for the life of the medical team. May the Lord bless them, strengthen them, and give them long life. They will be blessed. God will reward them for ever and ever.”
Abra’s face radiates with happiness as she adds simply, “I have joy in me!”
25 May 2012
Written by Nicole Pribbernow
Edited by Nancy Predaina
Photos by Debra Bell