Batilet sat on her knees, cushioned by a thin rug covering the dusty floor. She took her supplies from her backpack and arranged them meticulously in front of her. She wore a lovely green skirt printed with an African design and a blouse in complementary brown and olive. Her elderly patient, a stroke victim, sat in an upholstered chair nearby. They waited quietly as we entered the room and sat down on two sofas against the wall, a handful of staff and board members from HelpAge International, in Tanzania for a site visit. We were honored to be there, but also had trepidations about intruding into this intimate space, strangers to the country, and to this home.
Our colleague from the local program, Leonard, served as our interpreter. He translated Batilet’s account of her work as a health volunteer for older persons in the village of Kibaha, some thirty kilometers west of Dar Es Salaam. She told us that after the patient had suffered a stroke, he was paralyzed, unable to care for himself or get around his home. Along with other volunteers, she had been trained by HelpAge in a program designed to supplement the public health system. While health care is provided free to persons 60 and older, as well as to young children and those with disabilities, clinics are often distant and under-resourced.
Batilet’s physical massage therapy had enabled the patient to regain his mobility. He proudly stood up from his chair to demonstrate he had regained his strength and ability to walk. Now he received regular visits from Batilet and could also reach her by a mobile phone if needed. Batilet provides assistance to twelve older people, checking in on them, taking their vital signs, and helping to ensure they have the services they need in a program that can be life-saving and life-changing.
We asked questions about her work and her patients. She explained her tools –the bathroom scale, the blood pressure monitor, the thermometer, and a bottle of fish oil she used for massage. As we were winding up the informative meeting, a staff member from London asked a simple question, a question that would be commonly asked of volunteers in the US or the UK.
“What attracted you to volunteer for this project?”
As Leonard translated the question, we watched Batilet’s calm and professional demeanor change. Tears welled up in her eyes and she struggled to speak. We shifted uncomfortably, and the staff person quickly apologized, thinking she had asked something inappropriate. But Batilet regained her composure and began to tell her story.
A few years ago, she told us, her mother had also had a stroke. She lived far from a hospital or doctors. She did not have access to the care she needed. She suffered greatly, and eventually she passed away.
“Maybe,” Batilet told us, “maybe, if I had had the training then that I have now, I could have helped her. Maybe I could have made things better for my mother. I think of her when I help other older people. I do this now because I could not do it for my mother.”
The room was quiet. On the floor in front of Batilet were the tools she used with her patients. But the most important tool was one she didn’t have to transport in a back pack. That she carried in her heart, sharing it with each of her patients, and with us.
All Photos Courtesy of HelpAge Tanzania