Monday, February 02, 2009

The Worst Form of Violence

At the intersection of ignorance, poverty, and corruption is suffering…profound needless unimaginable suffering.

Perhaps the saddest thing I have seen in my time in Africa is the loss of life that occurs for no other reason than because no one puts any value on the poor. I have seen patients that have died as a result of clear gross medical negligence, but their poor families have no way to achieve justice.
There are Kenyans who are literally starving to death, but the government is more concerned with cultivating ways to enrich the wealthiest 1% of the nation than to figure out a way to feed the hungry.

But, what happened this past weekend up the road from my hospital is unconscionable. On Sunday, I saw a burn patient who was one of countless victims of a tragic explosion. He had 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 45 % of his body including burns to his legs that were so deep, I had to slice the burned skin (eschar) open to get blood flowing to his legs again (escharotomies). Taking care of burn patients is not unusual for a surgeon, but the accident that this young man had been in was entirely avoidable.

The day before, a tanker carrying fuel overturned on the highway. The particularly bad stretch of road often has truck accidents, and the incredibly poor people who live in the nearby villages usually come to the scene to take whatever product has been strewn about the highway, usually produce. When news spread that a tanker carrying petrol had overturned, people began coming from out of the nearby forest with containers to siphon fuel to sell. These people see these “opportunities” as God showing them mercy. They were actually climbing in to the overturned tanker to obtain fuel. Sounds crazy but poverty makes folks desperate, and an opportunity to obtain a few thousand shillings worth ($20 or so) of fuel was too good to pass up. Where were the police, you ask? Aren’t they suppose to cordon off a dangerous accident like this one until the appropriate hazmat team can arrive? That’s what they are suppose to do, but in this case, they were charging these poor people for the right to steal the fuel.
So hundreds of folks are showing up with containers to get the fuel, the police are taking bribes instead of keeping them back, when someone forgets to put out their cigarette…

So far the body count is about 120. They are still pulling bodies out of the nearby forest where the victims ran screaming in flames (but when your pants are covered in petrol, there is nowhere to hide). Those who managed to survive are overwhelming the local hospitals and we have already gotten a couple of patients in our small hospital (which does not have a burn unit). There will surely be more deaths.

The thought of hundreds of people in flames, having their flesh burned down to bone in agonizing pain sounds like a scene from war with incendiary bombs (nepalm) being unleashed on villagers, but this accident happened during peacetime to villagers who were celebrating their good fortune just moments before.
To an American, this scene sounds impossible: for people to risk their lives for a few dollars worth of fuel, but as I said: at the intersection of ignorance, poverty, and corruption is suffering...profound needless unimaginable suffering.

Trying to understand,

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.”
~Mohandas Gandhi

More on this story


At Fri Feb 06, 02:11:00 PM, Blogger ravengal said...

I heard this story on NPR. Indifference is a great evil, I think. Thank you for your blog.

At Sun Feb 15, 10:15:00 PM, Anonymous Felicia said...

that's crazy and you've just made me realize how grateful I am this time around in my life to be able to change things in this world!


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