Looking back I clearly didn’t want to see the sick people. I made a feeble attempt to make contact with the hospital authorities, and then some excuse about how my accreditation wouldn’t be enough to get past the guards on the gate. So there I was, hovering outside, hoping to catch relatives who were coming to bring food to their sick relations because Chad cannot afford to provide food for patients.
The women arrived on a wave, every one of them wearing a different colour, sparkling scarves shimmering in the breeze, sashaying silently past me with their loving offerings balanced on their heads. Some had flat trays with fruits and sauce on the side, others carried round plastic cool boxes. Lifting a lid I caught the scent of cinnamon and milk, healthy cubes of meat floating in a steaming broth. Some of them told me it took them all day to prepare the food, and cost anything up to $5.
But Nassir was right, we couldn’t do the story properly outside – we needed to get in there. It’s actually quite a pleasant place with two-story wards painted in different colours, arranged facing each other across tree-lined avenues like the 1970s chalets in a tattered Butlins holiday camp in Skegness. But it’s obvious there’s little equipment or medicine, most rooms just contain beds and blankets.
I wasn’t expecting the man with legs as thin as chair legs. He seemed so welcoming when we first went in, but I should have seen the film over his eyes and the beads of sweat gathered around the hole in his arm where the needle went in. Nassir tried to ask him what he’d been eating, but he flung his head back, rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, and started pulling his trousers down. I looked away quickly when I saw the melon-sized growth which had taken over everything he could have been ashamed of. I laughed nervously and said ‘Does he realise I’m not a doctor?’, casting around helplessly for recognition from his female relations. They just nodded at me and watched him tearing his clothes off.
I remembered why I don’t like hospitals. The cloying sweet air compounds the stifling eeriness of the living and the dying drifting along silently in parallel. We left in a hurry.