Since taking on the surrogate father role with Mtuseni, I’ve had to wear many hats: coach, cheerleader, task master, advocate, therapist, researcher, consoler, educator, employment agent — the list keeps growing. But I never expected to be his personal epidemiologist.
Since I’ve known him, Mtuseni has often been sick. Fever, flu, cold sores, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, congestion. Since I brought him some multivitamins last year — and continue to keep him stocked — he’s had far fewer bouts of cold and flu. But I’ll still get anguished reports of periodic stomach problems from him, told in his drama-queen style. (He can be a big baby when sick.) But some people (thankfully not me) are more prone to stomach bugs so I didn’t give it much thought, just waited for “I’m weak and dying” texts to switch to “I’m fine now.”
But when Mtuseni was here in Boston this summer, a small incident opened a new perspective for me on his tummy troubles. One night after supper he cleaned up the kitchen while I did some work. I came in later to put a few things back in their usual spot, and noticed the leftover rotisserie chicken wasn’t in the fridge. I looked in the cabinets and the trash but couldn’t find it. When I asked Mtuseni, he said “I put it in the oven” and, sure enough, there was the unwrapped bird sitting in the microwave. I chuckled incredulously and told him that stuff like this needs to go in the refrigerator. He was watching TV and only half-listened.
But this got me thinking… Is this how Mtuseni would normally store leftover food at home? The image of cooked meat sitting on a shelf overnight in his stifling shack haunted me.
So this past Monday he is “super sick” with cramps and vomiting. I ask if anyone else in school or the community is sick and he says only him and mom. With symptoms isolated to just the family, it sounds like food poisoning to me — and I think about the unwrapped roasted chicken. And then I think about the lack of running water. And handling raw meat. And mom’s pen of goats in the yard. And the outhouses. And the barely cool glass of Coke mom served me from their gas-powered refrigerator.
When I first asked Mtuseni to look for vitamins and explained how beneficial they are, he asked, “What are these magic pills?” If he didn’t know about vitamins (despite taking science and life skills classes in his public high school) then safe food handling practices were certainly not familiar to him. I quickly gathered some info and tips online — trying to tamp down my worry after reading about the effects of salmonella and E. coli — and sent them to Mtuseni. He said he’d look at them and do the best he could, but the fridge is too “weak” to keep things cold in the heat (and it’s barely spring there now). I just hope this is one time he fully listens to my advice and acts on it; I’m more aware now of the risks. Perhaps food-related illness is part of the reason why some people in the community “just get sick and die” — some families don’t have any refrigeration.
Some people who hear about my experience with Mtuseni don’t fully grasp the level of stress I carry sometimes. I’ll hear “Oh, my teenager is the same way: never listens.” But their kid doesn’t struggle to sleep in a cinder block hotbox on a summer night, or have no escape from the cold when temps dip into the 30s. They’re not ruining their eyes studying for exams by candle light or tarring their lungs with the smoke from kerosene lanterns. And they’re not going to spend three days weak and vomiting from a plate of leftover pap and stew.
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