The first time I saw Kumba Kamara, she was slumped on a mat by the side of her house. Her right foot and calf were wrapped in a filthy cloth that oozed yellow pus and smelled like it was rotting. Her tiny baby cried, but she didn’t have the energy to lift him.
Kumba told me that three weeks prior she’d been bitten by a snake while walking barefoot in the bush. Her sister carried her back to the village where she was treated by the local herbalist. He swathed the wound with ground leaves and performed a ceremony by a smoking fire. Then he told Kumba Kamara her fate was left to God.
I convinced Kumba to let me bring her to the government hospital. At first she didn’t want to go, afraid the doctor would amputate her leg. The traditional healer lurked around the car as her family lifted her into the back seat. His filthy fingernails clutched the window, trying to convince her to stay home. The healer was getting $5 for treating Kumba Kamara – she was a patient he couldn’t afford to lose.
At the Makeni Government Hospital, sick patients lined up against its filthy walls. This was where some of the world’s poorest people scraped together enough money to be seen by a real doctor. A young nurse unraveled the cloth from Kumba’s wound that stretched from the tip of her toes to her mid calf. The nurse said he’d never seen such a terrible bite, but thought he could save her leg. Then he cleaned the wound and swathed it in fresh bandages.
Kumba was admitted into the hospital. At first she was withdrawn, almost resentful of the treatment. I visited her frequently, hoping to see improvement. At first, I didn’t. Kumba seemed more depressed and in more pain than when I first found her.
But in her third week, Kumba was able to limp her way to surgery for her daily dressings. Shortly after that, she started breastfeeding her baby who was staying with her at the hospital.
In weeks five and six, Kumba sat with the other mothers in the female ward, chatting as they washed their laundry in plastic buckets.
In week seven, Kumba was told she could return home. This time, she could climb into the car that drove her home.
I brought Kumba to the same spot I found her – just outside of her home. She sat on a bench, and cradled her baby in her arms. And for the first time since I’d met her, I saw her smile.