Touch of life and death

Waiting has never been a strong suit. But when it is for your best friend who has never left your side, you don’t complain.

Early on Monday evening I was with Inayath Shareef (Inoo), waiting eagerly to welcome her new baby brother into the world. Every time the person inside the delivery room called out her mother’s name, we all flocked to the door. I take out my camera and get ready to click. But every time it’s a false alarm. The contractions still have not reached their height. Disappointed, we walk back.

To kill time, we talk and teased two young pregnant relatives in their mid 20’s. One of the girls looks as if the baby is going to pop out of her at any minute. A relative of Inoo say it is time for us to get married and have kids. We retaliate – “C’mon, we are still kids ourselves.”

Silently, I feared for the pain my friend’s mother must be going through behind the closed door. Relatives are not allowed in and the family only knows anything about the delivery through the occasional feedback from nurses.

Meanwhile, I overhear a conversation between Inoo’s aunt and a young man sitting inside the room, waiting for his wife’s delivery. When he was a baby, his birth mother and father abandoned him on the island. The frail, old couple I had seen moments before in the room, had adopted and cared for him like a son. They were never able to have a child of their own so it was a special occasion. They are soon going to be grandparents of a lovely baby girl.

Evening news starts on TVM at 8:00pm sharp. All eyes and ears were on the flat screen on the wall. The top story of the night, as expected, was the death of lawyer Ahmed Najeeb. Listening to the news at the time was strange. I was sitting among his blood relatives. He is the great uncle of my best friend. The tragedy has left the family devastated. When the news finished, they all talked about death penalty as the only solution to stop the henious crimes in the society which had claimed their brother’s life.

“Mara Maru [Death for Death],” my best friend says.

It was 9:00pm. The conversation on the death penalty had ended and we were again sitting idle. Some, including me, had proposed the idea of calling it a night.

The sudden sound of the person inside the delivery room startled everyone. The nurse called out the name. Same drill. Everyone rushed. I had my doubts, so I walked slowly. We were about to leave when the crowd came running in.

“The baby is delivered! Where is the bag with baby’s stuff?” a relative asks.

Inoo puts the dress for the baby, olive oil, cottons and other necessary post-labor kit into the bag and hurries outside to hand it to the nurse. She was so happy. That moment I realised how long it has been since I have seen that beautiful smile on her face. Life has not been too easy for her, or me.

Outside the labor room, the old relatives were facing a bigger issue. No one has prepared the honey. “How can you forget something so important?” one of the aunt complains.

It is an Islamic tradition to give honey as the first thing when the baby is born. They discuss what to do and finaly sends someone off to buy a bottle of honey.

Meanwhile, as I waited outside the labour room with camera ready, I saw a family rush into the emergency room, just a couple of feet away from labour room. A woman was carrying an unconscious child, about three years old. An accident perhaps, I thought.

However, I was not at the liberty to quench my curiosity because the labor room had just opened. Out came the nurse, carrying my best friend’s little baby brother, wrapped in a soft blue blanket. I switched on my camera and re-focused.

Inoo’s uncle walked in first. He was asked to recite the prayer call near the baby’s ears. Another Islamic tradition. Others followed in. It was such a special moment. Unlike other babies, he did not cry. Despite the bright light above, the baby boy managed to open his eyes wide. He scanned around and stretched out the hand and wrapped his little fingers around my best friend’s finger. He’s a healthy cute little fella weighing almost nine pounds.

The nurse took the baby back to the mother. We walk out discussing who he most resembles. Everyone agreed the boy looks like the father, who was unfortunately still on his way to Male’ from the resort where he worked. As I walked into the labor room showing the pictures from the camera, I accidently bumped into a woman who was crying. I apologised and entered the labour room lobby.

It was a joyous moment for all.  As we ate chocolates and celebrated the birth, a relative came in looking worried: “I think a child has just died.”

We all walk out to see what had happened. Five women stood crying outside the ward next to the labour room. Another curious onlooker told me a child who was brought to the hospital just now had passed away. Immediately, I recall the family rushing into the emergency room and the crying woman I bumped into.

“Oh my God!” was my first response. I followed a relative into the ward.

On the hospital bed, lay a beautiful little girl. I walked closer. Underneath a white blanket covering up to her neck, the girl’s arms were folded. One of the woman standing next to the bed snakes her fingers through the straight locks of her short black hair. “Please wake up,” she cries.

I pat her shoulder, unable to take of my eyes from the lifeless body of the little girl who is no older than one of my nieces.

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Three”, the woman replies. She is the girl’s aunt who had arrived Male’ from the island the day before. “She’s actually a very fair skinned girl,” she continued, as the girl’s skin turns darker with every passing minute. She held the girl’s chin tight, keeping her lips closed. I did not know why at first, but when fluids started to escape out her nose and mouth, no explanation was needed.

“Only if she would open her eyes,” the woman says, between sobs. I touched the girl’s forehead. Near the bed stood a another little girl in tears, no older than 10. The girl on the bed is her younger sister. I notice my best friend had just walked in, so asked her to take the girl outside.

“Where is the father?” I ask, as there was no man to be seen, except for a teenage boy. The woman explained that the girl’s father had abandoned the family a long time ago. Her sister has been raising the two children on her own all these years, with not a penny from the husband who had left her before the girl’s birth.

I could only imagine the mother’s sorrow. She was speaking with two police officers outside the ward. They ask her what happened.

“She was born with a hole in her heart. The doctor said she needed surgery in three months. I could not get enough money to do the operation.” The mother burst into tears.

A policeman asks if she has any complaints with the hospital.

“Why would I have a complaint with the hospital?” The woman cried. “I don’t. I only have complaints with myself. I am the mother. It was my responsibility to keep my children safe and raise them. I failed. It is my fault she is dead.”

Though I am a stranger and have no right to interfere in that family’s matter, I could not stop myself from speaking out.

“Please don’t blame yourself sister. Life and death is beyond our control. It’s not your fault. You did everything you could.”

The grief-stricken mother smiles, and walks back into the room with her elder daughter to say her final goodbyes.

Though I had told her the death of her child was beyond her control, I could not help but think that the little girl would be alive today if she could have had that life-saving operation.

Outraged, I told the policeman to find the father. “He should be held responsible,” I contended.

Inoo later told me that she had taken the elder daughter out for a walk. The girl told her: “My father will be very happy my younger sister is dead.” We both were dumb-struck.

It was time for Inoo’s mother to be transferred to the maternity ward. I conveyed my condolences to the family and followed my best friend. She was finally able to hold her baby brother. Everyone looked so happy.

I remained confused. I caressed the baby’s soft cheeks and walked out, leaving the family to welcome the new member into their home, as another family outside were preparing for their little girl’s funeral.

In one night, I had touched life and death.


Elderly being forced out of family homes to live on streets

I was riding home around midnight after buying a handful of hot spicy short eats in the drizzling rain, when I spotted what seemed like a human body lying on the pavement of a street near the local market in capital Male’

Curious, I asked my friend to stop the bike and walked closer to confirm my impression. Under a thin piece of ragged bed sheet – to my astonishment – lay a wrinkled old lady shivering herself to sleep.

That was the first encounter with Kadheeja Adam (or Shiraanee, as she prefers to be called), an elderly woman living alone on the streets of Male’.

For almost five years, she says, her home has been the streets surrounding the market. She survives on handouts from the local vendors, and occasional offerings from sympathetic passersby. She showers in the pay toilets around the block. Dressed modestly in dirty and frayed clothes, she keeps her few belongings tucked closely to her as she sleeps on the sheltered corner of a storehouse gate near the market.

Shiraanee says recently some of those clothes were mistakenly taken away as trash by the municipal officials one night, but she is happy because her favorite tin full of areca nuts was not taken.

“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Shiraanee replies bluntly each time I inquire why she is living on the streets.

Judging by her impaired vision, frail face and emerging grey hair, she appears to be in her 50s or 60s. But the most telling sign of age is her deteriorating mental capability.

Shiraanee says her house on Kandumaavaidhoo island of Haa Dhaalu Atoll was destroyed in the 2004 tsunami, forcing her to seek refuge in relatives’ homes – where she was never wanted.

“I moved from island to island. Stayed with some relatives and people I know. But nobody wanted me. So I came to Male’ on a ferry to live with my daughter,” Shiraanee said.

Shiraanee claims her daughter Aminath lives in Male’ with her husband and kids, and that she was planning to live with her. “But there was no space for me.”

When asked if she moved out or was abandoned by her daughter, Shiraanee does not respond. She claims not to know where her daughter lives anymore.

“I don’t know where she lives. They moved to a new house people say. She used to come ask for money before. Not anymore,” she said.

A few local vendors at the market who spoke to Minivan News said that it was rumored that Shiraanee is very stubborn, and moved out on her own to live on the street. I asked why.

“How do we know?” they responded. “There are so many people who are living on the streets nowadays.”

Distressing but true, Shiraanee happens to be just one among the growing number of “homeless” in Male’ – an upsetting trend which is quietly being “accepted” as a part of the society, despite the fact that maltreatment of the elderly is illegal and also considered to be among the greatest sins in Islam.

To the local fishermen and vendors at the market area lines of beggars, mostly old people of both genders, is a common annoyance.

No less than 10 people sit near the market to beg everyday from dawn, scattering away at nightfall.

Market vendors say many beggars have families or houses in the capital. “I really don’t understand why they are living like this. Some of them even refuse to go when their children come to get them,” said one vendor.

But he acknowledged that an unfortunate few like Shiraanee who have nowhere else to go spend their nights on the streets, in open parks or hidden in empty buildings – at the mercy of the cold nights and hooligans.

Some beggars claim being robbed or harassed by boys on the street.

“I have not been attacked,” Shiraane said. “When I give them some money they go away.”

One beggar said a Male’ shop owner used to pay him some small sum to sleep next to the shop and keep the burglars away.

“I get some cash or free stuff sometimes when I sleep there [near the shop]. But the shopkeeper hired a watchman later. So I beg near the market during the day and sleep in the fisherman’s park,” the 70 year-old man said.

Police are apparently “useless” when it comes to resolving the situation.

During the two nights I sat with Shiraanee listening to her story, policemen patrolling the area came to question what I was doing out there. So I responded with questions pretending to be a concerned citizen: “Why don’t you question the woman sleeping on the street? Shouldn’t you do something about this?”

The policemen said that it was a “common” problem and that they have requested the people not to sleep on the roads.

“Some of them [people living on streets] come from islands. So we identify them we take them to boats and ask them to go back. But the next day we see them here [in the market] again,” one policeman explained. “There is nothing we can do. We can’t keep them under our custody. So we refer the case to the ministry.”

However, the absence of an effective initiative to address the queue of beggars or old people living on Male’s streets indicates that the plight of homeless people is far from a resolution.

As opposed to most countries providing shelters for the needy, Maldives does not have any existing shelters or elderly care centers – therefore, hope that homeless will find a safe place to live seems bleak.

The government-operated “Home for People with Special Needs” on Guraidhoo island of Kaafu Atoll rarely accepts the destitute elderly; authorities have repeatedly pointed out that the facility – which is already under-equipped and cramped – is meant for the disabled, rather than the homeless.

Last year, the cabinet approved a resolution to allow private parties to develop residential home for the elderly under the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) scheme, but progress remains unclear.

At a time when social issues such as sexual abuse, gender discrimination and drugs make headlines, and abandoned babies elicit public outrage, should not the misery of the abandoned elderly receive equal attention?

Or must we wait until the night when a passerby finds the dead body of a homeless man or woman lying cold in the street?


Exhibition gives voice to abused, neglected and abandoned children

Among the black and white images on display was a picture of a hoisted national flag, captured by a six year old boy who dreams to become a policeman. This was one picture among the 41 images showed at the photo exhibition “Me through my lens”  – which provides the first glimpse into the life of abused, neglected and abandoned children living at the state orphanage “Kudakudhinge Hiyaa” in Villigili Island.

The two-day photo exhibition open from 10:00am to 10:00pm is organised by two friends; photographer Hussain Sinan and Dr Aishath Saistha Rasheed, a paediatrician at IGMH- who have started a voluntary movement called “Voices” to help the children at the orphanage.

Speaking to Minivan News Dr Shaistha said that the photo exhibition is the “beginning of a series of events to help the children build their skills”.

According to Shaisthaa, all the basic needs of the children like food, shelter and clothing are fulfilled, but the children lacked the opportunity to harness their talents and skills.

“When we were young, our parents worked really hard to build our skills. But the children at the orphanage don’t have this opportunity. So we decided to help by starting to teach them photography,” Dr Shaisthaa said.

Under the initiative, a team of professional photographers taught the children the basics of photography. The children were then gifted disposable cameras and encouraged to take photos, out of which the best were displayed at the photo exhibition launched by President Mohamed Nasheed on Sunday night.

She noted that people often identified the children at Hiyaa as abused or victims. “But we wanted to show that is not what defines them,” she said.

“Even these children have skills. Just like any children at their age, they wish for small things that bring them joy.”

She noted that the money raised through the exhibition will be invested to run more skill-building programs involving sports, creative writing and art.

According to the other organiser Sinan, 35 out of 41 photos exhibited at the gallery had now been sold for Rf 500 each. He also added that for every donation above Rf 199, a calendar with photos of children will also be gifted.

“We didn’t get the details on the past of these children. But these pictures tell their story. They have brought up what they feel through these pictures,” Sinan said.

Dr Shaistha and Sinan urged the public to help the children at the orphanage. “There are just 55 kids at Kudakudhinge Hiyaa. I am sure we can find 55 people who are willing to help these children, to make a difference in their lives”.

The exhibition provides enough incentive for those seeking the motivation to lend a hand to the abused, neglected and abandoned children.

The exhibition will be shown at the National Art Gallery until 10pm, December 20.